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5 capital-area school districts try for Race to the Top Funds

By Diana Lambert
Published: Wednesday, Jun. 2, 2010 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Wednesday, Jun. 2, 2010 - 8:08 am

California is back in the Race to the Top and five area school districts are lacing up their running shoes.

Sacramento City Unified, Natomas Unified, Twin Rivers Unified, Woodland Unified and Dry Creek Joint Elementary school districts are among 100 school districts and 200 charter schools statewide that have jointly applied for the second phase of the federal program.

The districts could collectively win up to $700 million of the $3.4 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds up for grabs, according to state officials.

There had been some doubt that the state would apply for the second round of funds after losing out in the first round in March. The state ranked a dismal 27th out of 41 applicants. Federal reviewers said a lack of support by unions and an insufficient data system to track student performance seriously weakened the state's application.

This time around, state officials took a different tack, enlisting seven school district superintendents, including Sacramento City Unified Superintendent Jonathan Raymond, to be the primary authors of the application.

"They wanted to have a bottom-up approach," Raymond said Tuesday. "A lot of work the first time was done by the California Department of Education and they wanted more work to be driven by school districts."

The approach may be working. About a quarter of the unions of participating California school districts signed on for the first phase of Race to the Top, while 33 percent signed on to this round, according to state Department of Education reports.

The Sacramento City Teachers Association was among the unions declining to sign. But Raymond is hopeful. "We all have to work collaboratively locally should we win the grant," he said.

Raymond said this application differs from the first in that it offers more specifics about implementation. He said the superintendents also included a strong emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) course work.

Raymond said he worked on the application for about three weeks before it was finalized.

"We have seen unprecedented collaboration in regard to putting this application together," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Tuesday before he signed the application at a ceremony at Lafayette Elementary School in Long Beach.

Districts statewide were invited to join the application two weeks ago. They had about a week to make the decision, without the opportunity to back out later that was allowed in round one.

The districts had to agree to implement the reform measures promised in the application. It focused on adopting international benchmarks that make up common core standards; recruiting and retaining effective teachers; expanding the education data system to measure student success; and improving the state's lowest-performing schools.

Most districts opted not to join the race for funding. Locally, Elk Grove Unified, San Juan Unified and Folsom Cordova Unified officials all cited the short time to make the decision and the inability to opt out as the main reasons for not applying.

But there were other reasons.

"Still, to this day, I don't think anyone knows how much money we'd get," said Patrick Godwin, superintendent of Folsom Cordova Unified. "We're signing on to all these obligations, and it is costly to do these things. The value of the money may not be equal to what it costs to implement."

He said he was also leery of fracturing relationships with the school district's unions when their cooperation is imperative to balancing the district's budget.

The 300 districts that signed on for the program have a total of 1.7 million of California's students – 68 percent of whom live in poverty, according to the state Department of Education.

In January, nearly 800 of the state's 1,729 public school districts, independent charter schools and county offices of education – including all 14 Sacramento County school districts – applied for the first phase of funding.

Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia had applied for the second phase of Race to the Top by Tuesday's deadline, U.S. Department of Education officials reported.

Federal officials will select the phase two winners over the summer. Ten to 15 states are expected to receive grants. The winners will be announced before the end of September, the department said.

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