For the third time, California has failed in its bid to secure even a small slice of the $4.3 billion Race To the Top federal education fund. This time the U.S. Department of Education summarily rejected the state’s application just one day after receiving it, saying it was “incomplete.”
The application was made on behalf of seven school districts that had formed a consortium titled California Office to Reform Education, or CORE. The districts are Los Angeles, Long Beach, Fresno, Sanger, Clovis, San Francisco, and Sacramento City.
At the heart of the conflict was Gov. Jerry Brown’s refusal to sign the cover sheet of the first phase of the application, apparently because he was reluctant to commit the state to a series of requirements imposed by the Obama administration, such as tying teacher evaluations to test scores of their students and longitudinal tracking of student performance.
“The governor’s refusal to allow districts who want to do the work at a time when public schools’ budgets are getting cut is just unfathomable,” said Hilary McLean, communications director for the CORE consortium.
The Department of Education’s rejection reflects an elevation of the tension between California and Washington over the requirements imposed by the Obama administration for receipt of these and other federal education funds, as well as for qualifying for a waiver from some of the most onerous requirements of the No Child Left Behind law. California has yet to apply for that waiver, and may well not do so.
It also represented a setback for those promoting science and math education. The guidelines for this third round of funding required that “a meaningful share of the award be spent to advance science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education in the state.”
Neither the U.S. Department of Education nor Gov. Brown’s press office responded to a request for a comment on Thanksgiving eve. In a joint statement, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said he was “disappointed” with the outcome, and Michael Kirst, president of the State Board of Education, defended California’s proposal as “unique in the federal competition” because “it did not rely on centralized top-down state policies or mandates.”
Just two days ago, Brown, Torlakson and Kirst sent a letter to U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan indicating the state’s support for the CORE districts’ application. California, they wrote, “remains committed” to the requirements demanded by the Obama administration for Race to the Top funds and agreed to by the Legislature two years ago.
But in the same paragraph they told Duncan that the state “cannot afford to implement these reforms statewide, nor can it compel local education agencies (school districts) to implement them.” But they indicated that the seven CORE districts that submitted the proposal would do so.
That statement reflected the reality that at least some of the changes demanded by Washington would have to be negotiated with teachers’ and other unions — one district at a time.
In Duncan’s eyes, the letter from Brown, Torlakson, and Kirst apparently did not represent an adequate replacement for the governor’s signature on the cover sheet of the application, as spelled out in the regulations in the Federal Register.
That set off what McLean called several days of “shuttle diplomacy,” at least via telephone and electronically. Kirst reportedly talked to Duncan to try to resolve the differences between the Brown and Obama administration on the issue.
What especially frustrated backers of the application is that California was all but assured of getting the funds. Only finalists in earlier rounds of the Race to the Top competition but had not received any funds were eligible to apply: Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky Louisiana, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
A document issued last month by the U.S. Department of Education listed the amounts each state could expect. California’s share was listed as $49 million. “Almost $50 million had California’s name on it,” said McLean.
“The money was ours for the asking,” echoed Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson in comments to the Fresno Bee. “One million students were left out in the cold, and it didn’t have to be this way.”
Gov. Brown clearly had a different view.