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LA teachers union blocks LAUSD's Race to the Top (Updated)

The L.A. teachers' union refused to sign off on the LAUSD Race to the Top application, effectively taking it out of the running for $40 million in federal funds.
The L.A. teachers' union refused to sign off on the LAUSD Race to the Top application, effectively taking it out of the running for $40 million in federal funds. Nick Ut/AP

Citing long-term budget concerns, the union for schoolteachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District has refused to sign off on the district's Race to the Top grant application, effectively taking the nation's second-largest school district out of the running for $40 million in federal funds.

L.A. Unified Superintendent John Deasy, sounding deflated, said Tuesday morning that the district had tried to work with United Teachers Los Angeles and couldn't understand why no deal was reached.

"They gave a number of different reasons and every single reason they gave we accommodated," Deasy said.

Initial concerns about ongoing discussions to meet a Dec. 4 court-imposed deadline for a new teacher evaluation system were addressed by the district. The Race to the Top competition requires districts to adopt an evaluation system that incorporates student test scores. Deasy said L.A. Unified provided the union with a legal assurance that plans for Race to the Top would be treated separately from negotiations.

But UTLA President Warren Fletcher said "a big part of the problem" was the cost. 

L.A. Unified's 150-page application proposes a $43.3 million budget for reforms that would require $3.3 million in funds outside of the $40 million government award. Deasy said union officials were informed that the additional money would have been granted through philanthropy.

But Fletcher said it wasn't just about the money for the grant right now that was the problem.

"When you sign on to a Race to the Top grant, you make commitments that go on long beyond the four-year period of the grant itself," Fletcher said.

"We have to be responsible. We can't make a commitment where it costs more than it brings in, because what you're doing is setting up a system where you're having to pay the piper in later years by losing positions then."

The deadline for the competition has not yet passed. Originally it was scheduled for Tuesday, but the U.S. Department of Education said it would push back the deadline because of Hurricane Sandy. The new deadline hasn't been announced.

"Right now I'd like to find out from the feds what the deadline is," said Fletcher, when asked whether an agreement might still be reached in time. But "right now, we're at a point where we really couldn't get it together to where it made financial sense."

District and union officials held a series of meetings last week and through the weekend to negotiate details of the grant application; multiple drafts of the 150-page application were sent back and forth. The application requires the signature of the superintendent, Board of Education and teachers' union, said Donna Muncey, a district official overseeing the application.

The U.S. Department of Education competition was launched in 2009 and originally required states to apply; this was the first time school districts could apply directly for nearly $400 million in federal dollars. The change was made after heavy lobbying from Los Angeles officials including Deasy and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

California has tried unsuccessfully to compete for Race to the Top dollars three times in the last two years, losing out because of budgetary or political reasons.

L.A. Unified has worked to institute some of the previously required reforms of Race to the Top on its own, including the collection of attendance data and a requirement that student performance be a factor in teacher evaluations. The use of test data in teacher evaluations has been a difficult issue for the district to negotiate.

Both the district and union are under court order to incorporate standardized test scores as a factor in teacher evaluations by Dec. 4. The details of how this will be done are still under negotiation.

Fletcher stepped out of meetings with a state mediator on teacher evaluation Tuesday morning to discuss why the union had decided not to sign the application.

"In both Lancaster and Santa Monica-Malibu, the districts, not the union, the districts looked at this and said this is going to be too much, we're going to put in more than we get out of it," Fletcher said. "It is a structural flaw in the whole Race to the Top system, and in a budget environment like Los Angeles is in, like LAUSD is in, we cannot take a risk like that."

But other districts remain in the race for the federal money. Officials said the Department of Education plans to make 15 to 25 of the four-year awards ranging from $5 million to $40 million, depending on the population of the students served.

A district must show a commitment to four areas of reform in its application; adopting standards to prepare students for success in college and the workplace; building data systems to measure student growth and success, and inform school staff members as to how they can improve instruction; recruit, develop, reward and retain effective school staff; and turn around the "lowest-achieving schools."

Deasy said L.A. Unified's proposal aimed to target students in four clusters of schools that were "in greatest need."

"It's a real shame because it was tremendous support for students," Deasy said. "More than 25,000 students would have benefited in our middle schools coming into high school to be on track for graduation, hundreds of jobs over the next four years could have been supported. Things we don't have the ability to do now that teachers have said very publicly they need..."

Former school board member David Tokofsky said the lost funds works out to about $250 a student, which is less than the nearly $400 in Title I funds such schools receive per student or the $1,000 per student schools have lost in state QEIA funds for not hitting their academic targets. Tokofsky said the district needed to coordinate these investment dollars.

"If you don't coordinate and get the buy in of people who do the work, you send new money after old money, and nothing changes," Tokofsky said. "Deasy's fixated over very ideological money of a magnitude that is dwarfed by other monies that he should be fighting for, like Prop. 30."

Tokofsky continued: "We all need to be rowing in the same direction, not just have a coxswain in front of the boat yelling at us what we should do. You need a coxswain and a crew that's rowing together. And sometimes the coxswain ought to get thrown in the water."

Race to the Top awards will be announced by the end of the year.

This story has been updated.

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

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