Brown consents to Race to Top

With Gov. Brown’s signature, but not full support, the seven districts that led the state’s pursuit of Race to the Top money will meet today’s deadline for applying for the third – and perhaps last – round of the program. They’re hoping that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his top deputies won’t hold the governor’s reservations – or contrariness – against them.

California’s share of at least $49 million of the $200 million total should be all but assured, because this stage of Race to the Top is reserved for nine state finalists from the last round and  is more of an award than a competition. However, Brown, who two years ago wrote Duncan sharply criticizing  Race to the Top’s approach of “top down, Washington driven standardization,” is declining to give all of the commitments for reforms that Duncan is requiring – even though districts, acting independently, not the state, would be doing the work. Brown’s position could jeopardize the districts’ eligibility. Update: Here is thetwo-page letter, very deftly worded, that the state sent to Duncan today stating the limit of the state’s compliance with the Race to the Top requirements.**

California could learn as soon as Wednesday, according to Sue Burr, executive director for the State Board of Education. If the state qualifies, then the districts would have until mid-December to submit a plan detailing what they’ll do. That plan, which State Board of Education President Michael Kirst and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson must sign as well, must also say how the districts will advance learning in  STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

The seven unified districts, serving nearly 1 million children Los Angeles, San Francisco, Long Beach, Fresno, Sacramento City, Sanger, and Clovis – have formed the California Office to Reform Education to continue the cooperation they started in applying to Race to the Top last year, and are known as the CORE districts. But nearly 300 other districts and charter organizations signed on to the state’s application last time, too, and also could participate in the effort if they choose. So far, they haven’t been involved in the latest application.

Focus on Common Core, data

It’s taken weeks of negotiations and verbal jujitsu for the CORE districts to get to the point of possibly satisfying Brown’s reluctance and the feds’ demands. A letter that will go out today will detail the commitments, but according to Burr, CORE districts will agree to focus on two of the four broad areas of reform covered in the last round application: preparing for the implementation of the Common Core standards in math and English language arts and creating data sharing to enable the Race to the Top districts to collaborate.

What Brown won’t sign on to are the other two pledges:

  • That the state agrees to continue the four strategies for turning around failing schools, whose effectiveness he has questioned;
  • That the state will continue teacher and principal effectiveness strategies that include using evaluations incorporating student test data. The California Teachers Assn., a key Brown ally, staunchly opposes this.

The feds aren’t requiring that the CORE districts work on all four; to the contrary, because the third-round grants are less than a tenth the size – $49 million compared with potentially $700 million, had it won Round Two – California and other states have been directed  to narrow their scope. However, the feds still want the states to affirm their commitment to all reform areas.

California is distinct among the finalist states in that a district collaborative is driving the application. So CORE is hoping the feds will cut it some slack. Its position is that the districts are continuing to work on all reforms, including teacher evaluations. As far as they’re concerned, nothing has changed since Round Two, according to Hilary McLean, communications director for CORE .

“We’re excited to move forward,” she said. “Race to the Top will accelerate the work that the districts have committed to do.”

The benefits from Race to the Top, including their work creating a data bank of formative assessments for Common Core, will be available to all districts.

“It would be a travesty for California not to seek the money,” she said, since it’s California’s to lose.

Whatever the governor’s philosophical misgivings, it would have been odd for Brown not to give the OK. He and Torlakson have cited the lack of state money as the reason the state cannot meet the federal requirements for a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law. Preparing for Common Core is one of those unfunded costs (Torlakson put it at at least $600 million, a very high figure). Furthermore, Brown has questioned the value of state-based teacher and student databases, saying data systems should be designed locally with information useful to teachers. That’s what the CORE districts plan to do with some of the Race to the Top dollars.

The other eight finalists are Colorado, Louisiana, South Carolina, Kentucky, Arizona, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. South Carolina has said it won’t be applying, leaving its share of $12.25 million to be divvied up among California and the other states. The others likewise may be sharpening their knives, hoping California’s application is a turkey.

** Here is the key paragraph: “The state remains committed to adopting and implementing college and career-ready standards and high-quality assessments, improving the collection and use of data at the local level, increasing teacher effectiveness and equity in the distribution of effective teachers in a manner that is determined locally, and turning around the state’s lowest achieving schools. It cannot afford to implement these reforms statewide, though, nor can it compel Local Education Agencies (LEAs) to implement them. Numerous LEAs are prepared, however, to implement several of the reforms as described below as part of the Race to the Top Round Three application.”

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" (, 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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