Obama’s Race to the Top May Help Spur Much-Needed Education Reforms


Obama’s Race to the Top May Help Spur Much-Needed Education Reforms

Schwarzenegger has opportunity to improve teacher performance and increase use of charter schools

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is once again “shopping” for government reform ideas (remember the California Performance Review?) to erase the massive deficit and improve California. In perfect timing with Schwarzenegger’s newfound ambition, the U.S. Department of Education is getting ready to hand out its $4.3 billion “Race to the Top” education reform funds.

The Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” program is using federal money to encourage states to better track student progress; recognize and reward good teachers; and close chronically low-performing schools, replacing them with higher-quality charter schools.

At first glance, California has been disqualified before the “Race to the Top” even starts. The state does not have the legal ability to link student achievement data to teachers and principals. In 2006, teachers’ unions successfully lobbied for a law that “prohibits the state from linking student data to teacher data for the purpose of pay, promotion, sanction, or personnel evaluation.”

That’s right: California’s teachers cannot be judged by how well they teach.

But with all that federal money out there, Gov. Schwarzenegger recently called for a special legislative session to rework state law so California can get a slice of the “Race to the Top” funds.

“Right now, we can’t tell over the course of time how an individual teacher or principal or school is doing,” Schwarzenegger said. “They call it a firewall, and I say tear down that wall.”

But the governor shouldn’t stop at tying test scores to teachers. Layoffs by seniority — last hired, first fired — have been part of the California Education Code for over three decades. Schwarzenegger should introduce legislation to adopt a seniority-neutral layoff policy that allows districts to layoff personnel based on effectiveness rather than years of service.

In Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa experienced the negative consequences of the seniority laws first-hand. Villaraigosa took over 10 low-performing schools under a partnership with the Los Angeles Unified School District. But when layoffs and cutbacks had to be discussed, the mayor learned that all of his schools could be gutted: all of the principals and assistant principals and about 200 teachers would have to be replaced by more “senior” teachers from other schools that were not part of the reform efforts. The education establishment should realize it can’t afford to lose good teachers simply because they haven’t been on the job as long as less effective peers.

Gov. Schwarzenegger should also latch on to President Obama’s call for more charter schools. Last week on CNN, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “I’m a fan of good charters. And the more we’re creating options and new opportunities for parents, particularly in historically underserved communities, we think that’s very, very important….You have to give these charter school operators real autonomy. These are, by definition, educated — educated entrepreneurs, education entrepreneurs and innovators. You have to free them from the bureaucracy.”

As last week’s state test scored showed, many of the state’s poorest communities would greatly benefit if charter schools were allowed to compete with the failing public schools. Across California in 2009, 50 percent of children were proficient or above in English, up from 46 percent the year before. In Math, 46 percent of students were proficient, a gain of three points.

Yet, those already mediocre numbers are much lower for disadvantaged kids. Only 36 percent of economically-disadvantaged students scored proficient in English and 37 percent of economically-disadvantaged students were proficient in math.

This “achievement gap” is crushing the futures of many poor and minority students. Only 37 percent of the California’s African-American and Hispanic students are proficient or above in English – 31 points behind white students and 36 points behind Asian students. As the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jill Tucker recently wrote, “Based on the rate of improvement from 2003 to 2009, it would take up to 105 years to close the white/Hispanic achievement gap and at least 189 years to close the white/black gap, which has failed to narrow by even a point in English since 2003.”

To help these kids, Schwarzenegger needs to revamp many of the state’s worst schools. California uses a “similar schools ranking,” which compares schools based on how their student achievement scores measure up to 100 schools that are similar in size and makeup. Going forward, if a school is at the bottom of those “similar schools rankings” and has failed to meet adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind requirements for five years, the school should immediately be restructured. Charter schools should be allowed to bid to manage these schools, as President Obama and Secretary Duncan have previously suggested.

In California, charter schools are already successfully serving the most disadvantaged students. If you look at test scores in public schools where more than 70 percent of children qualify for the free lunch program, charter schools operate 12 of the state’s 15 top performing schools.

With Secretary Duncan traveling the country with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich to promote “Race to the Top” and charter schools, Gov. Schwarzenegger has an opportunity to implement the type of bipartisan reforms that many thought he’d bring years ago. Getting California to evaluate its teachers, at least in part, on how much their students improve and replacing failing schools with charters are two reforms that can start to fix a public school system that continues to fail way too many kids.

Lisa Snell is director of education at Reason Foundation.