Monday, June 07, 2010

Educators Are Opposed to Obama’s School Plan

June 5, 2010

When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced last week that California was submitting a new bid for hundreds of millions of dollars in financing under President Obama’s education initiative, Race to the Top, he could not resist a Hollywood joke.

The school superintendents who prepared the bid deserved an Oscar “for the great performance in putting this together,” he said, thanking several by name, including Carlos A. Garcia, the San Francisco superintendent.

“It’s supported just about by everybody,” Mr. Schwarzenegger added.

That, too, was meant to be a joke.

Over the past few months, educators, the teachers unions and lawmakers have clashed so bitterly regarding the changes tied to Race to the Top that state officials privately say the weakened bid stands at best a 50-50 chance of gaining approval — and a sorely needed $700 million — from Washington.

The Bay Area has been at the center of this fight. Mr. Garcia had to be prodded into joining the bid by Ramon C. Cortines, the Los Angeles schools superintendent, and even now he continues to openly criticize a federal program that he hopes will send $20 million to the San Francisco Unified School District, which is facing a $113 million deficit.

Mr. Garcia has said he objects to both the stringent standards and to Mr. Obama’s execution of Race to the Top, which aims to overhaul the nation’s public schools by awarding money based on several conditions, including tying teacher salaries to student performance, abolishing teacher tenure and expanding charter schools. Many of the programs’ critics, including Mr. Garcia, say it is a strong-armed approach similar to the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind policy.

“We’re tired of all that stuff,” Mr. Garcia said. “Even if we get the money, I’m not sure if we can implement all of that.”

Mr. Garcia’s dilemma — he disagrees with the policy, but badly needs the money — is shared by many other strapped superintendents. But his perspective is unique to the Bay Area, where growing discontent among progressives over Mr. Obama’s brand of liberalism is reflected in resistance to his administration’s education policy, which has been forcefully articulated by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Many of the policy’s critics see Race to the Top as a direct attack on teachers. In San Francisco, the teachers union remains well connected to the school board and to influential San Francisco state legislators like Assemblyman Tom Ammiano and Senator Leland Yee, both Democrats.

The California Teachers Association has been among the largest donors to both Mr. Ammiano’s and Mr. Yee’s re-election campaigns, giving each the $7,800 maximum, campaign finance records show.

This week, by a vote of 48 to 28, the California Assembly passed a bill written by Mr. Ammiano and sponsored by the California Federation of Teachers that caps the number of state-sanctioned charter schools at the current level of 1,450.

The history of Mr. Garcia’s work in San Francisco, educators who have worked with him say, suggests he is perhaps not as opposed to the Obama administration’s policy as his public criticism might indicate.

After the district approved a ballot initiative in 2008, for example, it began rewarding schools monetarily for improved test scores — a compromise, but not quite the merit pay for teachers that the Obama administration has pushed for. Board and staff members also say Richard Carranza, Mr. Garcia’s deputy, has been quietly instituting more quantitative analyses of student and teacher performance.

Mr. Garcia said his actions matched what he had been saying all along.

“What I’ve said to Arne, what I’ve said to the state, is: ‘Bring us under the tent. We want to be part of the partnership,’ ” he said. “But a partnership isn’t, ‘My way or the highway.’

“We’re waiting for that hand to meet us halfway.”

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