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California joins race for school stimulus funds

From the October 15, 2009 SacBee:

California is back in the race.

Sunday afternoon Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill that took away the biggest obstacle to the state winning a share of $4.35 billion in federal Race to the Top funds for education.

Senate Bill 19, authored by Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, eliminates a statewide ban against tying student test scores to teacher evaluations.

President Barack Obama and U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan had warned California leaders in recent weeks that the state would not see any of the Race to the Top stimulus funds if they didn’t change the law.

Simitian said the legislation should putCalifornia back in position to receive the stimulus funds. There were two preconditions to applying for the money, the senator said: “One was fill out the application, and two was remove any barriers to the use of data.”

Federal officials would not comment specifically on California’s chances now that the ban has been lifted, but they indicated it was a step in the right direction.

“We applaud California’s leaders for making a difficult decision,” said Justin Hamilton, U.S. Department of Education spokesman.

Education experts have said Race to the Top grants could be as high as $200 million to $300 million.

“More states are going to lose than are going to win,” Hamilton said. “It has to be the states that are absolutely pushing the envelope.”

State schools chief Jack O’Connell said Tuesday that SB 19 gives California a “fighting chance to compete for Race to the Top funding.”

The legislation eliminated a paragraph in another state law passed in 2006 that barred the state from using student achievement to evaluate teachers.

At the time, the state was planning two new statewide databases, one to track a range of information on students and another to track information on teachers. The student database, known as CalPADS, launched last week. The teacher database is expected to launch in 2011.

Teachers unions lobbied for the language in the 2006 bill to ensure the two databases would not be linked.

Simitian dismissed the whole brouhaha as a “tempest in a teapot,” saying the 2006 bill that created the prohibition  which he authored  may have stopped the state from using student information in teacher evaluations, but not individual school districts.

“We had a small but significant difference of opinion with the United States Department of Education about what the existing law did or did not mean,” Simitian said.

Still, the language caused confusion. And only a couple of school districts in the state are using student test scores to evaluate teachers.

Rick Miller, deputy superintendent of state schools, said the new legislation clarifies the issue for school districts.

“It sends a message that it’s a good idea to consider it,” Miller said.

Local school Superintendents Frank Porter and Jonathan Raymond say they are glad to have the issue clarified and plan to use student scores in their evaluations of teachers.

Porter, superintendent of the Twin Rivers Unified School District, said student data will be one of many things his district will be using to assess teachers. “To use one source of data isn’t fair and reasonable,” Porter said.

Raymond, superintendent of the Sacramento City Unified School District, said he will look into using “a range of measures to begin to determine teacher effectiveness, and I think that using test score data would be one, but not the only measure.”

Simitian said the legislation opens the door to more discussion about the use of data to improve education. “This is the beginning of a wider-ranging discussion at the Capitol in the weeks and months ahead,” he said.

In order to pass the legislation, state Democrats found themselves in a rare position  opposing the state’s powerful teachers unions.

Marty Hittleman, president of the California Federation of Teachers, said the union negotiated hard for the old language and the new legislation leaves him feeling betrayed.

“It makes you question whether you can trust people,” Hittleman said.

State education officials have said, even with the ban lifted, they have no plans to set up a statewide evaluation system for teachers. But Hittleman was not assuaged.

“Jack O’Connell won’t be the superintendent forever,” he said.

Although eliminating the data fire wall qualifies California for the Race to the Top dollars, it doesn’t mean the state is a shoo-in. Obama has said he also wants states to set vigorous standards, turn around low-performing schools and put outstanding teachers in hard-to-staff subjects such as science, math and special education.

Schwarzenegger has proposed another Senate bill to address that. The legislation would require that the bottom 5 percent of low-performing schools implement turnaround strategies, allow students at the lowest-performing schools to attend any school in the state, repeal California’s charter school cap and reinforce a school district’s authority to use alternative pay schedules to reward teachers and create incentives.

“These are things that would make our application more competitive  bonus points if you will,” Simitian said.

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