Despite strong objections from teachers unions, the state Assembly on Tuesday night approved changes to California schools that would give parents more power to transfer their children from badly performing campuses and petition for fixes that could include removing principals.
The changes are intended to help California win a share of $4.3 billion in new federal funds that will be available through the Race to the Top program. The Obama administration is using the promise of that money to push states into adopting education reforms the president and his aides favor.
The legislation will signal to President Obama "that California is ready to experiment with promising reforms," said UC Berkeley education professor Bruce Fuller, although he added that the legislation does not go far enough.
The measures target for improvement the lowest-performing schools in the state, as judged through student performance on standardized tests. They would give parents more say in how their schools are run.
The bills would require districts to take aggressive steps to turn around failing campuses. Those steps could include firing the principal and the staff; reopening the school as a charter; or closing the school and moving students to higher-performing campuses.
Students in the 1,000 lowest-performing schools in the state could transfer to better schools, even across district lines. The legislation would also allow districts to link teacher evaluations to student performance, if local collective bargaining agreements concurred. The L.A. teachers union has opposed such links.
And in 75 failing schools, districts would be required to revamp campuses in response to parent petitions. Currently, most districts are not required to act on parent complaints.
"For too long we in Sacramento have looked the other way when it comes to students in California who have languished in persistently underperforming schools," said Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), an author of the legislation. "Parents are the strongest agents of change."
The Senate, which previously supported similar proposals, is scheduled to take action today.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has made the legislation a top priority, signaled that he would probably sign the two education reform bills if they pass the Senate as written.
"Today we have come together to pass sweeping education reforms to better our children's education, provide more choice for parents and make sure California is highly competitive for hundreds of millions in federal dollars for our schools," Schwarzenegger said.
The governor has championed the open-enrollment and parent-petition proposals. Those elements once again pit him against old political foes, including the California Teachers Assn., which said the measures would "drain resources from classrooms and punish lower-performing schools."
Backers said the legislation was urgently needed because of the looming Jan. 19 federal deadline and the provision that money would be doled out based on how much the states have done to improve school performance.
Earlier Tuesday, the Los Angeles Board of Education approved a measure that commits the district to abide by the changes. More than half of the school districts in the state also have agreed to make the necessary reforms, state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said.
"Clearly we need the money, but more than that our kids need a better school district and a better education," said L.A. school board member Yolie Flores Aguilar.
One provision of the measures allows parents at poor-performing schools to force changes in school operations. If at least 50% of the parents at a school sign a petition, the school board must choose one of a handful of options, including closing the campus, converting it to a charter or replacing the principal and other administrators.
As a compromise, supporters of the measure agreed to limit the number of schools at which parent petitions would force action to 75.
That petition proposal was born of battles within the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has adopted a similar but more limited concept.
Ben Austin, executive director of the foundation-funded parent organizing effort Parent Revolution, hailed the Assembly action.
"It's an entirely new way of thinking about public education. It's about giving parents real power to advocate for their children," said Austin, whose group has close ties to Green Dot Public Schools, a charter school management organization based in Southern California. Charters are public schools that operate independently of many district rules and are mostly nonunion.
SB 5X 4 would give parents in 1,000 of the worst-performing schools in the state more power to transfer their children to better campuses in the same or other districts.
The open-enrollment provision enlarges a practice that already is common within school districts, including L.A. Unified, the state's largest school system.
The measure passed by one vote, 41 to 27; Assemblyman Mike Davis (D-Los Angeles) provided the winning margin after he was surrounded by Democratic leaders urging him to support the measure.
Jeff Freitas, an advocate for the California Federation of Teachers, said the measures would divide parents and teachers at schools. While some students could transfer to other campuses, Freitas said, "you are leaving students behind with no reform for that school."
California Teachers Assn. representative Patricia A. Rucker accused lawmakers of being blinded by the promise of onetime federal funding.
"If it was not for the money that you are chasing in this onetime application, would you have seriously considered taking such an expeditious, such a short-circuited and ill-considered approach?" Rucker asked the Assembly Education Committee.
Responded Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento): "We are not in a position to turn our backs on the potential of $700 million to help kids in high-poverty schools."
The other bill, SB 5X 1, identifies poor-performing schools and requires them to pursue improvements, develop new curriculum to better prepare students for college or jobs and improve use of student performance data to evaluate teachers and principals.
The two most controversial provisions also were opposed by the California School Boards Assn. Erika Hoffman, an association advocate, urged lawmakers to drop the open enrollment and parental petitioning provisions, saying that they "aren't necessary" to win federal funds.
Lawmakers who voted against the measures worried that the changes would create chaos as students abandoned poor-performing schools in droves and flooded better school districts that might have trouble accommodating them.
The open enrollment proposal was opposed by Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica), who said the 1,000 schools affected may not necessarily be the worst-performing, which could result in a widening of the achievement gap that would hurt poor and minority students.
"I am still very concerned about what I believe might be potential unintended consequences," Brownley said.