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Parents and Civil Rights Groups Applaud Race to the Top Law

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Special to CBM --

After calling a special session and introducing a bi-partisan legislative package, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger last week signed historic education reform legislation making California highly competitive in President Obama’s national $4.35 billion Race to the Top education reform and funding competition. On July 24th, 2009 President Obama and U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced federal eligibility and competitiveness requirements for states to compete for the single largest pool of discretionary funding for education reform in U.S. History.

Bi-partisan measures SBX5 1 by Senator Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) SBX5 4 by Senate pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) ensure California can submit a highly competitive application for up to $700 million in funding for California schools and education reform measures designed to improve the state’s lowest performing schools.

The new law represents a victory for civil rights and parent groups including the California State NAACP; Urban Leagues throughout the state; and the Los Angeles-based parent union, Parent Revolution, who pushed Legislative leaders to adopt parental choice measures for students in the state’s lowest performing schools.

“This is a paradigm shift, an entirely new way of thinking about education reform. We're going to fix our schools by giving parents the power. We're going to trust that parents know more than anyone about their child's well-being,” said Shirley Ford a parent and leader in Parent Revolution.

Under the new law parents of students in schools that perform in the bottom 10 percent of statewide student achievement are free to enroll their child in any school in California. Called “open enrollment,” the new law conceived by Gov. Schwarzenegger and championed by Sen. Gloria Romero, will impact 1,000 California schools at the bottom of student achievement. Advocates anticipate that with the new measure, parents of children in low-performing schools will move their children to schools with a proven track record.

As a resource to parents and schools, California Business for Education Excellence (CBEE), a group formed by the state’s top business leaders, recently released a list of 395 “Honor Roll” schools with large populations of low-income and minority students that have boosted students’ grade-level proficiency for four years running.

“Schools on the Honor Roll dispel the myth that certain students can’t reach grade-level proficiency and that schools with a challenging student population won’t be able to succeed,” said Greg Jones, CBEE Chair. “Honor Roll schools are overcoming challenges every day to raise student achievement.”

Also a key part of California’s Race to the Top legislation is a provision called the “Parent Trigger,” which authorizes parents to petition and require school boards to fix failing schools. The law requires a school district to implement one of four federally-approved interventions for turning around a persistently low achieving school if half the parents request action through a petition submitted to the school board. Among the options is closing the school and transforming it into a charter school.

Teachers unions oppose the new Race to the Top law supported by Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, Senate pro tem Darrell Steinberg and a majority of Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature. California Federation of Teachers president, Marty Hettelman drew criticism from civil rights leaders last week when he referred to the “Parent Trigger,” a provision lawmakers designed to empower parents in the state’s lowest performing schools, as “the lynch mob provision” in the January 5th edition of Inside CFT.

Critics charged the use of the term was racially charged and inappropriate. State education department data indicate that in schools that have been failing for seven or more years, 86 percent of the students are African American or Latino. Hittelman dismissed request for a public apology for using the term saying “we thought we used it advisedly.”

The deadline for California to submit its Race to the Top application to the U.S. Department of Education is January 19, 2010. State education officials report Forty-four percent of the school districts, county offices of education and charter schools in California have signed-up to participate in California’s Race to the Top bid. State Education Undersecretary Kathy Gaither applauded the level of school participation, which represents 57 percent of students attending California K-12 public schools.

“This is going to give us broad statewide impact and make us very competitive,” said Gaither.

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