California applies again for federal school-reform grant


California joined 34 other states Tuesday in competing a second time for federal Race to the Top school-reform grants, but union opposition could doom the effort.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger signed the state’s application at Lafayette Elementary School in Long Beach, joined by officials who included state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell.

“The goal is really quite simple,” O'Connell said, “to have an effective teacher in front of every classroom, to have a true school leader at every school site and to have the necessary infrastructure and support at the school.”

The state could receive up to $700 million in one-time funding to link teacher evaluations to student performance, place the most effective educators in struggling schools and better use data to improve teaching. The plan also embraces the federal emphasis on replacing staff at “failing” schools and converting some to independently run charter schools, most of which are non-union.

At the news conference, the governor touted the participation of 40 unions. To reach that number, however, officials counted unionized charter schools; they counted one charter organization, Green Dot Public Schools, 17 times — once for each of its campuses.

Only 17 unions from 123 participating school districts signed on. The unions in opposition include those from Los Angeles Unified and Long Beach Unified, the largest participating school systems.

Limited union participation likely would diminish the state’s chances at winning, given the scoring system, analysts have said.

The grant would provide a needed financial infusion as cash-strapped districts statewide are resorting to laying off teachers and shortening the school year to balance budgets.

Critics, including many from outside of unions, have opposed linking teacher evaluations to student test scores as well as other controversial initiatives they said would prove costly after the grant runs out.

Nationwide, union opposition has not been automatic. Several states, including Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York and Florida, deserve praise for collaborating “in a meaningful way with educators, parents and community leaders,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Earlier this year, California failed in the first round of the contest, from which only Delaware and Tennessee emerged as winners.

California almost abandoned a second try, but U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan personally urged Schwarzenegger not to give up, officials said.

In the current bid, California has opted to put together a more aggressive package spearheaded by a “working group” of seven school districts rather than settling for a watered-down application that might attract more widespread buy-in.

“We have decided to focus our efforts only on districts firmly committed to reform,” Schwarzenegger said. “This is what makes this different.”