Down to wire on Race to Top

10.11.2011 | Thoughts on Public Education | John Fensterwald

With applications due in Washington a week from tomorrow, Gov. Jerry Brown still hasn’t decided whether to let California apply for the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge. But, with Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson four-square behind it, the state Department of Education is preparing an application on the assumption – or at least the hope – that Brown will sign on.

Race to the Tots, as I call it, is a $700 million competition in which California could snare as much as $100 million to expand the quantity and improve the quality of its preschool and early learning programs. Early education advocates have called on the state to use the potential money for two priorities:

  •     To test a Quality Rating and Improvement System, a rubric to create consistency and uniformity in evaluating the effectiveness of – and potentially to differentiate funding for – preschool programs.
  •     To develop the curriculum and teacher training for transitional kindergarten, an innovative two-year program for late-birthday 4-year-olds that California will phase in starting next fall.

As with all variations of Race to the Top, the state needs the signatures of Brown, Torlakson, and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst. Only Torlakson has made his views known so far.

Sue Burr, executive director of the State Board, said that the final rules allowed more flexibility for the states to design their proposals, but the application is still prescriptive. Brown remains concerned that the Obama administration will require commitments from the state extending beyond when the funding runs out. If the state does move forward, California will give counties and regions with innovative early learning programs – Los Angeles, Fresno, and Santa Clara County, to name a few – latitude to serve their own residents, without interference from the state. The federal government should recognize California’s diversity, she said.

An application that satisfies Brown’s concerns, however, may not be strong in the eyes of the RTTT judges, who may want assurances that federal dollars will have a lasting effect and create statewide changes.

Burr said that in creating the RTTT application, the Department of Ed has been helped by members of the former Early Learning Advisory Council, which Brown eliminated in the current budget. As part of the competition application, California would have to agree to reestablish the advisory council in some form, Burr acknowledged.

California is also eligible, along with eight other states, to apply for the third round of the original Race to the Top competition. The seven districts that led the nearly successful second round have expressed interest in pursuing that opportunity, for about $50 million, through a nonprofit they formed, the California Office to Reform Education (CORE).

The application for that isn’t due until December, and final rules have yet to be set. Burr said that the Brown administration has similar concerns about making state commitments for money it doesn’t have. It hasn’t signaled to the CORE districts whether they should start work on the application, Burr said.

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