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Governor: State missing out on school funding

By Jill Tucker
San Francisco Chronicle
Friday, August 21, 2009

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called a special legislative session Thursday to address several state education laws he said create a firewall between California and a sizable chunk of $4.3 billion in federal school reform funding.

California is now ineligible for the Obama administration's Race to the Top money and needs to change existing laws, including those related to teacher performance and caps on charter schools, to compete for it, the governor said.

He will also push for merit pay - more money for effective teachers - a controversial practice almost universally opposed by teacher unions.

The special session order requires the Legislature to act on the issue by Oct. 5.

Schwarzenegger said education officials in the state are "in sync" with his proposals, but major players were left in the dark prior to Thursday's press conference, including the teachers union and elected state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, who is among the required signatures on the federal grant application.

"Superintendent Jack O'Connell shares Gov. Schwarzenegger's goal of California qualifying for Race to the Top and we are currently reviewing the proposals he put forth this morning," said his spokeswoman Hilary McLean.

Under current proposals, states would have to meet strict guidelines to qualify for the federal funding, including the ability to judge teachers using student test scores.

A 2006 state law prevents the state from using such data to evaluate teachers, but the law does not prevent districts from doing so at the local level. Some education leaders say that qualifies California for the federal money.

The governor didn't buy that. The guidelines "won't allow any state to compete in the Race to the Top if we have laws that restrict linking performance with teachers," he said.

The governor's plan also includes eliminating a cap on the number of charter schools in the state and allowing parents whose children are in the lowest-performing schools to transfer to any school in the state.

"In this time of crisis, focusing our attention on the expansion of the district-of-choice program is a distraction from what we really ought to be doing - fixing our neighborhood schools," said Assemblyman Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, in a statement. "The choice parents really want is to send their child to a safe, quality school right in their own neighborhood."

The California Teachers Association said many of the items on the governor's list are issues negotiated at local bargaining tables, and a process already exists to identify, help or fire bad teachers.

"We believe that the purview for all of these issues ... lies with local governing boards and local bargaining units," said Dean Vogel, CTA vice president.

Even if California qualifies and receives some of the federal grants, the money likely would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars - a relatively small pot given the state's $50 billion education budget, not including billions of dollars in annual federal school funding.

The first round of applications for the federal funding is expected to be this fall with a second round in the spring.

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