The Race Is On

S.B. Schools Sign Up for Controversial Federal Reform

<strong>Strings attached:</strong> Pushed by enrollment deadlines, the Santa Barbara School Board signed up to enter the federal government’s Race to the Top education reform program last week. Boardmember Annette Cordero, despite supporting the spirit of the program, was the lone vote against signing the agreement in support of the program.
Paul Wellman

Dangling a big, bright carrot of potential cash in front of fiscally challenged school districts as a means of motivation, the Obama administration’s newfangled plan for public education reform came to town last week and prompted the Santa Barbara School Board to hold an emergency meeting to consider signing up for the Race to the Top program. With enrollment deadlines looming, the federal initiative — which designates some $4.35 billion of stimulus dough to be split among states that pledge allegiance to the somewhat controversial tenets of the national program — had a legal path cleared for it in California earlier last week when Governor Schwarzenegger signed two pieces of sweeping legislation into reality that, among other things, allow parents to pull their children out of underperforming schools, calls for the closure or reconfiguration of the worst schools in the state, and opens the door for evaluating teacher performance via student test scores.

Spurred by the same January 19 deadline, the Santa Barbara School Board — in step with some 70 percent of the public school districts statewide — voted 3-1 on Thursday evening to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the state, effectively saying that they will do their part to heed the call from Washington and support California’s Race to the Top.

“I would say that everybody feels like they are entering into an MOU that they don’t entirely understand,” opined boardmember Annette Cordero in the wake of the special meeting. Cordero, the lone trustee to vote against the MOU, felt things were happening too fast with too many unknowns and too little input from stakeholder groups like the Santa Barbara Teachers Association (SBTA) to be committed to at this time. “My concern is that [the MOU] circumvents the full discussion with teachers and other district personnel on matters that are likely to be very controversial,” explained Cordero. What she is talking about — and, to a lesser degree, what concerned her fellow boardmembers — is the fact that Race to the Top calls for a revamping of teacher evaluation (one that would use student assessments and other measures to help inform decisions about compensation, promotion, and retention) and the possible implementation of a merit pay system. These are two things that any teachers union would, for obvious reasons, want to have input on and, most likely, would have reservations about. In fact, in a letter submitted to the board on Thursday, SBTA President Layne Wheeler indicated just that, saying that the union had no desire to sign the MOU.

Besides the aforementioned teacher evaluation and compensation language, the Race to the Top program also calls for beefed-up state standards when assessing student achievement, improved data systems to help teachers monitor progress, and a somewhat No Child Left Behind-esque mandate that states the bottom 5 percent of schools in each state be shut down, turned into charter schools, or revamped in such a way that the principal would be transferred and 50 percent of the teaching staff terminated or relocated. We won’t know until at least April if California is accepted into the program or how much, if any, of the estimated $700 million that the Golden State will get for joining could end up in the Santa Barbara School District coffers. (It is, however, understood that, should the money be received, 50 percent of it would go to Title 1 schools while the other 50 percent would be passed out in an as-yet unknown process).

For this reason, and because it remains to be seen how a district will be able to participate if its teachers union refuses to sign on — or if any money will be available to actually implement the increased assessment practices mandated — the MOU, explains Superintendent Brian Sarvis, is nonbinding. “We aren’t going into this blind, but we are certainly going into things without knowing all the details,” said Sarvis this week, before adding, “and that is why there is a clear exit strategy should we not be able to deliver on the promises. We just won’t know until the springtime.”

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