The federal Department of Education released criteria Monday for individual districts or groups of districts to compete for the last $400 million in Race to the Top-District dollars. Count Los Angeles Unified in the competition – if Superintendent John Deasy can persuade United Teachers Los Angeles President Warren Fletcher to sign the application (perhaps a big “if”).
LAUSD would be eligible for the maximum $40 million grant – 10 percent of the total – if it’s selected in December.
California was shut out of the money in three previous rounds, although it was a finalist in Round 2 and districts leading the effort were in line for as much as $49 million in Round 3. But Gov. Jerry Brown refused to sign the application, saying that doing so would involve statewide commitments to adopting teacher evaluations linked to student test scores that the state wasn’t able or willing to make.
That frustrated Deasy and six other superintendents in the California Office to Reform Education, a district collaborative created to apply to Race to the Top. Although the new district competition is open to all districts nationwide, LAUSD and the other CORE districts should have a leg up because they’re in states denied the money. Rick Miller, executive director of CORE, said that the districts in the collaborative are discussing whether to apply together, to improve their chances.
Deasy, however, said that LAUSD plans to submit its own and has started working on it. The district must apply by late October and let the feds know of its intent by the end of August.
Some of Deasy’s initiatives are in sync with reforms that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Obama administration have been pushing, and so could help boost the application’s chances. These include a school-based budgeting experiment, giving school site administrators more authority over funding decisions; the expansion of Pilot and Local Initiative Schools, which invite teams of teachers, parents, and community partners to design and operate schools; and a comprehensive teacher evaluation system that the district is piloting and negotiating with the teachers union (by court order, it must include, to some degree, the use of state standardized tests as a measure of student progress).
The signature of the head of the local union must be included with the application for this competition, and that could prove the hardest sell. Fletcher said that UTLA has been skeptical of the Race to the Top model at the state level, which has involved a big commitment in dollars in return for a relatively small federal grant over five years. And the primary measurement of achievement under the program has been standardized tests.
A district’s prior record of success and “conditions for reform” will count for about 25 percent of the points of the application. A district’s vision of reform will count for 20 percent; a plan for preparing students for college and careers will count for another 20 percent. In May, the LAUSD school board adopted the policy of requiring all graduates to successfully complete the 15 courses required for admission to a four-year state school, starting with the class of 2016. That requirement could help narrow the achievement gap for students who are interested in college, but doesn’t provide avenues and choices for those who aren’t.
A commitment to improve a district’s plan over time and sustain it with funding – problematic for any district in California – comprises about an additional 20 percent of the points.
The money is to be used to “personalize learning,” which is vaguely defined as accelerating student achievement and deepening student learning to meet needs of individual students. Using technology and building community partnerships may be part of it, as may increasing access to effective teachers.
Deasy wouldn’t say what LAUSD plans to do with the money – that’s a competitive secret – other than to say the district will prepare a “highly competitive, excellent proposal.” Fletcher said that he and Deasy had not discussed a proposal in any detail but that “it’s important for UTLA to be open to the conversation. We’re always willing to talk.”