California Teachers Union Questions Need to Race to the Top

Published October 13, 2009

California teachers union officials are questioning whether Race to the Top dollars are worth the reforms it takes to get them.

“The governor’s rush to change laws so California can apply for Race to the Top funding could undermine student progress and hurt schools,” the California Teachers Association said in an August 28 statement. “The proposed regulations for Race to the Top are all too similar to the failed policies of the No Child Left Behind Act.”

Lawmakers from both parties disagree with that assessment.

“Race to the Top is about equality,” said state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-East Los Angeles), who will be running for the office of state superintendent of public instruction in 2010.

The program ensures “every child from every background has access to a quality education, including effective teachers and principals,” she said.

State Sen. Bob Huff (R-Glendora) agrees.

“I believe we should go after every dollar we can,” he said. “California has had to make cuts in all areas of government, including education. While this is unfortunate, Race to the Top offers us a two-for-one deal. We will get what I believe are innovative reforms to turn around our schools, and much-needed education dollars to give them more tools to excel.”

Negotiating Leverage

Reformers note Race to the Top gives Schwarzenegger and lawmakers leverage in negotiating with the teachers union, which is among the most powerful political lobbying groups in the state.

“If Arne Duncan and President Obama had not used California as an example or made linking student performance and teacher evaluations a specific priority in Race to the Top applications, Schwarzenegger and the legislature wouldn’t have had the leverage or political will to challenge the education status quo,” said Lisa Snell, director of child welfare studies at the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation.

New Paradigm

Race to the Top is different from previous federal education programs because it requires reform before granting the money. Huff says that may be good for California.

“The strings attached will eliminate some constraints that have for years restricted the state’s ability to deliver a high-quality education to our kids,” Huff said. But it’s not a panacea. “Sooner or a later we have to realize when the system is broken, no amount of money can fix it,” he said.

Other reformers share Huff’s reservations.

“It’s an open question whether at the end of the day these Race to the Top funds will actually result in real and lasting changes and reforms,” said Lance Izumi of the Pacific Research Institute.

“California’s education finance system is a Byzantine mess, so pouring more money into the same system may not get the public a lot of bang for the buck.”

Ben Boychuk ([email protected]) writes from southern California.