State Makes Second Effort at Education Money Grab

Californians will soon learn whether "the second time around" applies to public education as much as affairs of the heart.

The state -- or more accurately said, a portion of it -- has applied for up to $700 million in badly needed federal funds for its impoverished public education system. The federal program is known as "Race to the Top."  

Currently, California ranks a pathetic 46th in per capita education funding -- with an education product to match.

Recent national test scores in English, math and science have California students performing near the bottom -- sad testimony to the once Golden State. Further, over the past three years, as per capita funding from the state has decreased even more, the state's required school days per year has shriveled to 175 from 190, and classroom sizes have become the largest in the nation.

All of these data points underscore the criticality of the current application.

In the first round, 40 states applied for federal funds and California came in 27th. Only two states, Delaware ($100 million) and Tennessee ($500 million) received money from the $4.35 billion pot.  California didn't come close because the state failed to demonstrate quantifiable relationships between teacher instruction and student performances.

Flaps between unions and administrators over measuring performance criteria helped sink the application. Cajoling 1,000 school districts to sign on to the same criteria proved to be an impossible task, and California students suffered as a result.

The second round is being managed differently. After lengthy negotiations, the Obama administration agreed to let a handful of districts with superior data tracking systems apply instead of the entire state. Among these are San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Now, there is some method to the madness. L.A. alone has five times as many students as the entire state of Delaware, numbers which certainly are compelling. A few other districts throughout the state have joined in the unusual collaboration. Should these districts manage to to succeed, they will be the beneficiaries of the federal funds.

The "Race to the Top" program accentuates the difficulty of a large state managing a policy. Getting all the districts in line is much like herding cats. Thinking parochially may be good for local school boards, administrators and unions in their relationships with parents, but it has cost our students dearly.

Even if the consortium of districts prevails this time around, the news will be bitter sweet. On the one hand, California may pry lose badly needed funds. On the other hand, the funds will be distributed very unevenly, yet another sign that California may just be too big to govern.    

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