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Cameron Smyth: 'Race to the top' plan leaves students behind

Posted: December 11, 2009 4:02 p.m.
Updated: December 13, 2009 4:55 a.m.
 
Recently, legislators were called back to Sacramento to vote on legislation to make California more competitive for "Race to the Top," a $4 billion federal program announced by President Barack Obama earlier this year to encourage innovation in our public schools.

In order to qualify for up to $700 million in one-time funds, we need to make important changes to state law. Right now, the Saugus Union School District is considering the possible closure of up to five schools.

This is not the time to take California out of the running for additional federal money.

The Legislature has a rare opportunity to be part of a national movement to promote excellence in our schools. The Obama Administration has called on California to make changes to education codes to focus more on parental choice and student outcomes.

If we embrace reforms that put students and parents first, we can improve academic opportunities for every child in California for years to come. That improvement has been jeopardized, however, by a faction of legislators who have proven to be too liberal for even the Obama Administration.

Unfortunately, it looks like special interests and politics as usual could get in the way of doing what's best for our kids.

Senate Democrats and Republicans joined together to pass a reform plan that empowers parents, improves low-performing schools and gives every child a first-rate education.

This plan has been supported by charter schools, school reform advocates and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sadly, the plan was killed in the Assembly Education Committee.

More disappointing than the result is that six members of the committee sat silently, without casting a vote, as the bill fell three votes short of passage.

Instead, Assembly Democrats are pushing their own plan. Their plan is favored by union bosses and other special interests, and it puts California's Race to the Top competitiveness at risk.

Schwarzenegger has already announced he will veto the Assembly Democrats' plan because it waters down educational reforms and makes California less competitive for these much-needed federal dollars.

While common sense would suggest that Assembly Democrats work with the Senate and the governor on a compromise, they want to ram it through and present a plan that will be dead as soon as it hits the governor's desk.

To truly maximize California's potential share of Race to the Top funding, there are four critical principles that must be included in any reform plan we send to the governor.

First, parents must have more choices to select their child's school. California must remove the artificial cap on the number of charter schools that can exist.

It must also give students in the lowest-performing schools the opportunity to move to another place that best meets their needs.

Second, parents should have the power to demand reform if their child's school is failing.

The bipartisan Senate plan would force a district to initiate major changes at a school as soon as parents equaling half the students attending that school sign a petition demanding change.

Third, charter schools must have the flexibility to succeed.

The state should make it easier for charters to succeed, not burden them with red tape to satisfy special interests.

In fact, the Assembly Democrats' plan would mandate the state controller to craft audit guidelines of charters in required consultation with those most hostile to them, including union bosses.

This is like letting McDonald's dictate the audit guidelines of Burger King, and it stacks the deck against charter schools.

Finally, school administrators must be held accountable for student performance.

When it comes to education, success should be encouraged and rewarded and failure should not go unnoticed.

The Assembly Democrats' plan doesn't make principals more accountable. In fact, the bill doesn't require student performance to be a crucial measure of a principal's effectiveness at all.

Even during these tough economic times, we can improve our schools by reforming the way they are run.
California can't afford to lose out on $700 million because our politicians are out of line with reforms being implemented in other states and encouraged by the Obama Administration.

If we promote innovation and strengthen accountability, we can boost the educational outcomes of all students.

Cameron Smyth represents California's 38th Assembly District. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.

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