In Race to the Top, California Dragged To the Depths

President Obama’s “Race to the Top” fund sounds well-intentioned: the program will dole out more than $4 billion to “turn around” low-performing schools and set new curriculum standards that will produce students who can compete in the global economy.

But quality education isn’t the real focus of the fund. Rather, it aims to expand Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s market-based, pro-charter school, testing-regime project—a further corporatization of public education that often directly contradicts such lofty rhetoric. Race to the Top is administered by Joanne Weiss, former head of the NewSchools Venture Fund, a philanthropic organization that seeks to expand publicly funded, privately run charter schools.

The competition has big implications for teachers and students in California, but not because of the money at stake. The Golden State could garner up to $700 million in one-time grants—a measly sum when shared among its 6 million students.

The race has prompted California’s legislature to pass two bills that allow students in the lowest-performing schools to transfer to any school in the state or have parents force school boards to turn over schools to outside operators—a measure the California Assembly had earlier rejected.

California Teachers Association (CTA) President David Sanchez says the bills will “drain scarce resources from lower-performing schools, lower standards for teacher credentialing, and create chaos for local school districts.”

Students in the state’s “worst” 1,000 schools—rated by test scores mandated by the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law—would be allowed to transfer to higher-performing schools. The schools would then adopt standards for accepting such students, enhancing their ability to cherry-pick students based on academics, behavior, or parent influence.

The two new bills were passed just days before the January 19 deadline for states to apply for the new federal funds. They give state officials broad authority over schools in the poorest-performing districts, and require these districts to sign agreements with the state and with unions.

Both the CTA and California Federation of Teachers (CFT) have warned against participating, while declaring that local districts would have to negotiate over any impact of these bills if they accepted money.

Many California politicians justified their support for the bills with the mantra of parental choice. But what such “choice” really means is that parents could be stampeded into closing or charterizing local schools.

Districts that receive the new federal money must agree that at least half their schools that are below test standards will remove most of the current staff, be converted into charters (and do away with union contracts), or close and have their students redistributed.

In addition to such destabilizing pressures, the bills would force California to create a new testing system, fast track unsupported teachers through an alternative credentialing system, and mandate that student test scores be used as a “significant” factor in teacher evaluations, compensation, and promotion.

CFT President Marty Hittleman says research by Education Testing Services and others suggests that such tests are ineffective as a measurement of teacher quality. “Standardized tests can be a useful tool among others to assess student learning, but it is too narrow of a measure on which to base a student’s grade—let alone gauge a teacher’s performance,” said Hittleman.



Give $10 a month or more and get our "Fight the Boss, Build the Union" T-shirt.

Last June, Duncan declared that states without charter schools, or even those that cap their growth, would be at a “competitive disadvantage” for tapping the new funds.


The recent California legislation would cap new charters at 75 and promises to regulate them. But as education writers Danny Weil and Kenneth Libby observe, “Charter schools are all about escaping regulation and oversight; that is why they are so attractive to their investors.”

But this attractiveness does not guarantee financial success. The California Charter Academy’s 60 schools took $100 million in state financing but soon declared bankruptcy, leaving thousands of students in August 2004 without a school to attend.

The charges go beyond fiscal matters. A study by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA found that three out of four Black students who attend charters nationally are in “intensely segregated” schools, which contain at least 90 percent students of color. This is twice the rate of regular public schools.

Special education students are kept out, too. In Los Angeles about 8 percent of students are in charters—58,000 enrolled at 152 schools. The likelihood that disabled youth will be enrolled in an independent charter school is one-fourth of that in traditional public schools.


Nearly 800 California school districts are seeking a share of $3 billion in additional Title I grants to overhaul “low-performing” schools—money that will be channeled directly to districts.

It is too early to know precisely how Race to the Top will affect union contracts and job and learning conditions, but many CTA and CFT locals see the writing on the wall. The Oakland Education Association rejected the premise of the funds competition.

In the midst of a contentious contract battle linked to the fight to contain charters in Oakland, teachers voted to authorize a one-day job action. They see a direct link between the growth of charters and the draining of resources from the district—which in turn affects contract talks. The district, whose rolls have dropped by 33 percent since 2002, is offering no wage increase. Meanwhile, 8,000 students go to charters in Oakland, up from 2,000 eight years ago.

Jack Gerson, on the OEA bargaining team, says Duncan wants to convert schools but “ignore that what is really necessary to ‘turn around’ these schools is to address the social conditions that lead to poverty and disruption in the lives of the students.”

The OEA leadership has called on the Obama administration to create another federal stimulus plan for education with no strings attached. The fight over resisting privatization and demanding adequate state and federal funds is at the core of the statewide “Day of Action to Defend Public Education” on March 4, supported by CFT, CTA, and the California Faculty Association.

Bill Balderston is a member of Oakland Education Association.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #372, March 2010. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.