Mountain View Voice

News - January 15, 2010

Schools line up for federal dollars

Educators not enthused about 'Race to the Top' program — but covet its much-needed funding

by Kelsey Mesher

Last week school districts around the state decided whether they would move forward in applying for a piece of $4.35 billion in federal stimulus money — all of it earmarked for states with "ambitious" and "achievable" plans to improve public education.

Though some districts have elected to opt out of what's being called "Race to the Top" funding, including those in Los Altos, Palo Alto and Cupertino, both of Mountain View's school districts submitted paperwork Friday to keep them in the running.

The money will be distributed to states in two phases over the next year, although who qualifies for the funds, and how much money could ultimately reach the Mountain View districts, is still unclear. California as a state is eligible to receive up to $700 million.

What local administrators have said for certain is that they don't want to close the door on possible funding.

"There are a lot of unknowns," said Mountain View Whisman School District Superintendent Maurice Ghysels at a district board meeting last week. One unknown is whether or not the state of California will receive a share of the money, and if it does how it will be allocated.

"Our reasoning is going to be that we go forward with it because we could always back out," he said.

Administrators in the Mountain View-Los Altos School District had a similar stance.

"It keeps us a place in line," said Superintendent Barry Groves. "I'd rather keep our place in line and our options open rather than closing our options right now."

Trustees of the MVWSD board also pointed out that opting out of Race to the Top could upset school supporters.

"I think it would be very difficult for people in our community to hear that we turned down potential money and (then) we made any cuts from the budget," said trustee Ellen Wheeler.

An added layer of complication is recent legislation in Sacramento which the state needed to pass to become eligible for the federal funding. Among the legislation are some controversial reforms allowing parents of students in failing schools to demand changes in their district, or even to send their children to neighboring, higher-achieving districts.

Several prominent educational organizations, including the Association of California Administrators, the California School Boards Association and the California Teachers Association, opposed the final bills.

Despite the rush to make the state eligible for Race to the Top funds, some educators don't think California will receive any funds from the first round of distribution.

"First of all the state has to get the money, and only 10 or 15 states are supposed to get the funding," said Mary Lairon, MVWSD assistant superintendent, speaking from an education conference in Sacramento on Tuesday. She reported hearing that some Race to the Top organizers are pleased the funds have spurred reform already — even though no money has been distributed.

Locally, administrators are continuing to process the application, although they express ambivalence about the design of the program.

"This is really a bad way to run education reform," Groves said at his district's Monday board meeting, referring to fact that the Race to the Top funds would be one-time dollars. "What California education needs is real reform with real dollars behind it."

The current budget crunch puts added pressure on school districts to apply for the funds. Last week, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger laid out his proposed budget for the next fiscal year. Though he vowed to "protect" K-12 education from further cuts, MVLA administrators said they will still be balancing a budget with $2.1 million less than this year. The MVWSD faces similar cuts.

E-mail Kelsey Mesher at kmesher@mv-voice.com ?? ?? ?? ??

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