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Analysis: LA Unified to compete in new Race to Top contest

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

Earlier this month U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced there will be a district level competition for Race to the Top dollars. For the first time money will be paid directly to districts from the federal government, instead of via the state.

That is big news for California, and especially Los Angeles. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has pushed for such a change in D.C. But what does it mean, and why the change?

"If you're a school district as huge as L.A. Unified have the potential to impact a significant amount of children in the state of California, and you don't have to wait for the governor's approval to do so," said Charmaine Mercer, director of policy and research for Communities for Teaching Excellence. In her previous life, Mercer was a Hill staffer for Chairman David Obey (D - Wisconsin) and she wrote what became Race to the Top. (She clarifies that Obey was "the architect.")

California has unsuccessfully tried to compete for these dollars thrice in the last two years, with it losing out last year because Gov. Jerry Brown refused to sign off. But this changes everything, especially for districts such as L.A. Unified, which is the second largest in the nation and has worked to institute a lot of the required reforms on its own.

"You do have some districts that are more forward moving and more forward thinking than their states are," Mercer said. "But because of the current construct of the state level competition, which required the governor and state superintendent to sign off, you couldn't get this [money]...they end up serving as the gatekeeper."

In this case, the new funding model has also received support from at least one of those former "gatekeepers."

"I am in support of districts individually seeking Race to the Top funds as long as there are no statewide obligations," said California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.

Superintendent John Deasy said he was very pleased with the change and had lobbied hard at multiple meetings with officials at the Department of Education for a district level competition.

"L.A. [Unified] will definitely put an application together," Deasy said. "I think we're in a position to be a strong applicant."

Deasy said the district would likely do one application on its own, but might consider a second application (if it is allowed) with a consortium of districts it has previously applied with, on behalf of the state.

Rick Miller is the executive director of the California Office to Reform Education, that consortium of seven districts statewide working together on joint reform issues. Collectively they represent more than one million kids throughout the state.  

Two years ago he was deputy superintendent at the state's Department of Education and helped write the first state application for Race to the Top. He has some insight into why that effort failed and what this change brings.

"We wrote and submitted the application, and didn't come close," Miller said. "We got crushed. After, they released the scoring rubric and told you where you fell short...What came clear was that the state didn't have the ability to succeed in this competition for two reasons."

Miller said those two reasons included financial reasons — state law requires it pay districts for anything they are mandated to do, and Race to the Top demanded the state collect certain amounts of data from districts such as attendance data, whether students go on to college, and more. The state had no money to pay for this, Miller said.

The second reason was the requirement that teacher evaluation be tied to student performance as one of multiple measures.

"The state just didn't have the political will to commit to that, that's a local decision," Miller said. "So for lack of political will and financial reasons the state couldn't mount a credible application. What was recognized is that districts already have data, and it won't cost them anything. And districts can commit to use the teacher evaluation system."

That is what L.A. Unified has done in introducing a pilot teacher-evaluation program, with strong union opposition. United Teachers Los Angeles suspended their legal challenge in December, but reserved the right at the time to reactivate should talks with the district turn sour. 

"There's a little information out there that suggests this could be difficult for L.A. Not impossible, but certainly difficult," Mercer said. "If the union is fighting them, threatening to take them to court over a pilot program, what will this mean when they actually have to do it [districtwide]?"

It's a good question, and one that will likely become more clear as the details of the application requirements are also nailed down. UTLA President Warren Fletcher is on AirTalk this morning with Larry Mantle discussing Race to the Top. UTLA spokeswoman Marla Eby said the union had no comment.

Deasy said many of the Race to the Top requirements are already being fulfilled by L.A. Unified, in addition to the district's new pilot teacher-evluation program. He said he respects union concerns, but said "it's still the right thing to do."

"It is our obligation to not only follow the law fully in California, which really requires us to do evaluations similar to what they have laid out in Race to the Top, but it is actually what we are doing," Deasy said. "It's why we've rolled it out this year."

Most officials are expecting more details on the program within the next month, though Department of Education officials say the priorities will be out by June. Duncan said earlier this month, "what we'll be asking of districts is still very much up for consideration."

All that's clear for now is that the majority of the $550 million pot will go to districts. That's far less than the $4 billion pot previously provided for Race to the Top competitions.

"When you have $550 million, there are fewer statewide comprehensive plans you can fund," said Elizabeth Utrup, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education. "It's sort of making the most of the funding, and having the greatest impact within the conditions that apply."

Utrup said a part of the application process is also showing "buy in" including "having the union sign on, having key stakeholders sign on to the application, so there is a collective unified effort toward the reforms being presented in the application."

Whether L.A. can muster that collective political unity and will to actually win Race to the Top dollars is unclear, but the new competition gives L.A. Unified the chance to get into the game. 

"Reform happens on the local level," Utrup said. "Districts have a lot of influence and a lot of impact on improving education systems. And the greatest change comes from the local level, not from Washington... They're not top down ideas, they're bottom up ideas."

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).