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California Assembly OKs overhaul of low-performing schools

California's lowest-performing schools would be targeted for a sweeping overhaul and the state could vie for a slice of $4.35 billion in federal Race to the Top funds under legislation narrowly approved Tuesday by the Assembly.

The plan also would empower parents to force significant changes in failing campuses through signature-gathering drives, and would allow students in 1,000 of the worst-scoring campuses to enroll elsewhere.

"It's bold, it's visionary and it sets the template for reform," said Sen. Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles Democrat who helped push the two-bill package.

But critics blasted the measures as too sweeping, too risky, too divisive and too hastily written in attempting to meet a Jan. 19 deadline for the state to apply for up to $700 million in federal grants.

Opponents include the California Teachers Association, California Federation of Teachers, California School Boards Association and Association of California School Administrators.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signaled Tuesday night that he will sign the package if it is passed by the Senate today, as expected, without major amendments.

"Today we have come together to pass sweeping education reforms to better our children's education, provide more choice for parents and make sure California is highly competitive for hundreds of millions in federal dollars for our schools," Schwarzenegger said in a written statement.

Race to the Top is an attempt by President Barack Obama's administration to squeeze change from crisis by throwing $4.35 billion in federal stimulus funds into a competition calling upon cash-starved states to make dramatic operational changes.

The unprecedented competition provides wide latitude for states to develop specific proposals, but it requires action designed to improve teacher effectiveness, turn around failing schools, enhance academic standards and student testing, and more effectively use data to drive change and accountability.

Neither of the two California bills would take effect unless both are signed into law.

The most controversial measure, SBx5 4, which contained the parent empowerment and open enrollment provisions, cleared the Assembly by the bare minimum number of votes required, 41-27. Its companion bill, SB5x 1, passed by a 44-17 vote.

Key elements of the package would:

• Require one of four significant interventions into California's persistently lowest performing campuses: close the school, convert it to a charter, replace the principal and up to 50 percent of staff, or replace the principal and implement numerous other major changes, including enhanced staff training and financial incentives for top teachers.

• Allow parents at up to 75 failing campuses to trigger one of the four specific interventions – or a more general fifth option demanding "major restructuring of the school's governance" – by collecting signatures from more than half of students' parents or guardians.

• Allow students at 1,000 of the state's worst-performing schools to enroll in other school districts. Students at charter, juvenile court and county community schools would be excluded.

The bills also would require creation of a 21-member Academic Content Standards Commission – a majority of whose members would be public school teachers – to develop new standards in English and mathematics meant to better prepare students for the global economy and to allow better comparison with other states and countries.

Other elements of the package include improving data collection to ensure that a student's growth can be tracked from year to year; finding ways to emphasize science, technology, engineering and mathematics; and allowing student test scores to be used in evaluating teachers, subject to collective bargaining.

The measures also require the state to create alternative credentialing programs for working experts and others seeking to teach science, technology, engineering, mathematics or career technical education.

Opponents warned that such sweeping change could spark costly or unintentional consequences remaining long after Race to the Top ends.

Allowing students to flee a failing campus and enroll in another district does nothing to improve schools, and it raises questions about financial impacts to both districts and about liability for new busing expenses incurred, critics said.

Patricia Rucker, CTA lobbyist, questioned why the state would commit to expensive changes when billions have been cut from school budgets the past three years and the state faces a projected $21 billion shortfall by June 2011.

"The bill harms California schools and undercuts their ability to provide every student with a high-quality education, and (it) will create a burgeoning fiscal mandate that the state already cannot afford," Rucker added in a letter of opposition.

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