7 districts primed for Race’s round 3

The seven school districts that led the state’s second round application to Race to the Top – and did better than expected – are eager to go after money that the Obama Administration has reserved for California and eight other states in round three. And although the $50-plus million that California can expect as its share would be less than a tenth of the $700 million it sought last time, that amount would mesh nicely with the seven districts’ plans, according to Rick Miller, the former Deputy Superintendent of Education who was in charge of the first round bid and now, in a new role, would organize the third round, too.

Miller is executive director of the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE, the non-profit organization that the seven unified districts – Los Angeles, Sacramento City, Sanger, San Francisco, Long Beach, Fresno, and Clovis – established to continue the commitments that they made in applying for Race to the Top.  They have obtained $5 million in foundation funding and have focused on two areas in the Race to the Top application: carrying out Common Core standards through the creation of a data bank of formative assessments – diagnostics that help teachers with instruction  – and of lesson plans, and improving teacher effectiveness, in part through the development of teacher  evaluations. When U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says that he has seen “as much or if not more reform” from states that lost, as from those that won, Race to the Top, he could be talking about CORE.

Duncan is dividing $700 million that  Congress allotted between $200 million for the third round of Race to the Top and $500 million for  competitive grants for early eduction, the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge. Duncan has until Dec. 31 to get the money out the door, so he’s setting it aside for the nine states that made the semi-final round but weren’t selected: Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, South Carolina, and California. They don’t have to submit applications under new and different criteria, and, assuming they meet the as-yet unspecified criteria, there should be money for each. South Carolina has already said it won’t apply, and Pennsylvania is having second thoughts under a new Republican governor, so there will be more for California and the others. For the most part, the $50 million and then some is California’s to lose.

“We have a good plan in place and are ready to accelerate the work,” said Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson. “We all (the seven superintendents) agreed that this is something we want to pursue.”

With a lot less money on the table, Duncan’s office is expected to encourage states to scale back their work, but it’s still unclear what that means – whether CORE districts could focus on just the two elements – Common Core and staff improvement – they have identified. Miller said that $50 million is in the range of an ideal budget that the CORE districts had already drawn up for their work. This would include creating a data system that would allow districts to share information and evaluate the success of their Common Core efforts. In calling for suspension of funding for CALPADS, the comprehensive statewide longitudinal data system, Gov. Jerry Brown said he favored databases that local districts would find useful. Miller said the seven districts would define and create such a system, which other districts could use as well.

Several hundred districts and charter schools, though few teachers unions, signed on to the second-round application. Their role in a third-round application would need to be clarified.

In the second round application, the districts agreed, as a condition to participating, to use test scores as at least 30 percent of the teacher and principal evaluation criteria. Hanson said that the districts now regard that figure as arbitrary and think that it should be determined by each district through negotiations with its teachers. If the federal government is unyielding on this or other aspects that the CORE districts find “problematic, the reality is that we will walk away from the process.” The districts are committed to going ahead with the work, whether or not there is additional federal money, Hanson said.

Rules for the applications are expected to be out in the next few months. Miller said that CORE may expand its scope to include preschool and seek a larger amount.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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