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California Hands Obama a School Reform Victory

My colleague Nick Anderson, on the national education beat, reports on a development in the Obama administration's school reform campaign:

If there were any doubt, California is back in contention for a piece of President Obama’s $4.35 billion school reform program.

The nation’s most populous state had been in jeopardy of failing to qualify for the “Race to the Top” grant competition because of a state law that federal officials described as a “firewall” blocking the linkage of data on individual teachers and student test scores.

State officials had vigorously contested that interpretation. They said the law in question did not prevent local school systems from using test scores in teacher evaluation or compensation initiatives.

But in a victory for the Obama administration, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) this week signed a bill that repeals the statutory provision that had drawn federal scrutiny.

The California Teachers Association (CTA) and other unions have been sharply critical of proposed rules for Race to the Top that stress reforms such as performance pay. The data issue is one step in setting up programs that would reward teachers for improved test scores.

Without the student-teacher data linkage, the administration argues, meaningful efforts to include student performance in compensation and evaluation would be difficult if not impossible. Unions say that there are many questions about the fairness of using test scores to judge individual teachers and the value of such measures for improving schools. However, labor leaders in some places have signed onto performance pay initiatives through collective bargaining.

The Race to the Top rules will be finalized this fall and grants awarded next year.

“California is likely to be a significant beneficiary of Race to the Top funding,” said state Sen. Joe Simitian (D), chief sponsor of the bill. “We will earn our way to a competitive position. Eliminating the debate about the performance data was the necessary precondition.”

For the record, the CTA was neutral on the bill.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday that the state action "was a victory for the children of California." He said that the data linkage is essential "to understand the relationship between great teaching and student learning."

By Washington Post editors  | October 13, 2009; 2:00 PM ET
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