State

State school reforms package cleared

The Legislature on Wednesday passed reforms to improve the state's worst schools and make them eligible for a pot of federal money, but many Stanislaus County school districts are reluctant to apply for the new programs.

The bills, which Gov. Schwarzenegger intends to sign today in Los Angeles, were motivated by President Barack Obama's Race to the Top initiative. He set aside $4.35 billion in economic stimulus cash to reward states that reform their education policies to his liking.

California could be eligible for up to a $700 million share of that fund if the Obama administration approves of its reforms.

Only six of the county's 26 school districts intend to apply for the federal dough, though. Officials at some of the districts said they think the one-time money would be too little to institute the required, costly changes.

"We've been advised that there are way, way too many unknowns, that it's a pig in a poke," said Fred Rich, superintendent of the Oakdale Unified School District. And since the funding is aimed at low-performing schools, Oakdale wouldn't be eligible because its elementaries have state rankings higher than the cutoff point, he noted.

Even so, all districts will be required to comply with the new law if Schwarzenegger signs it as he has said he intends to do.

It allows students to attend any school in the state, not just those in their district of residence, and empowers parents at schools with low test scores to force drastic changes to that school if half of them support the action.

Race to the Top is billed as Obama's signature education reform, much like No Child Left Behind was for former President George W. Bush.

Larger districts such as Modesto City Schools and Ceres Unified School District intend to take advantage of the extra money.

Ceres Unified Deputy Superintendent Scott Siegel said the funding could help improve teaching and student learning. For example, if awarded money, Siegel said, the district could adjust its benchmark tests students take each year.

"Race to the Top could help us develop more formative assessments and offer more teacher training that would have a positive impact on the classroom," he said.

Siegel also praised the program for focusing more on steady improvements in student performance on test scores instead of requiring all students to meet proficiency standards, as No Child Left Behind does.

"It's more of a growth model, where we look at 'Did we have growth, did we have growth in our subgroups (such as English learners, low-income students)?' " he said.

Teachers unions are the largest critics of such changes, especially tying teacher pay to test scores and increasing federal control at the expense of local control.

Modesto Teachers Association Executive Director Barney Hale said, "I'm concerned about the fact that California seems to be rushing into this legislation without a lot of discussion or a lot of research."

Hale said if changes are implemented, they would have little impact on the classroom.

"I think the effect will be minimal because the resources we expect from it will not be extensive," he said.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339. Read Hatfield's education blog at thehive.modbee.com/ExtraCredit.

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