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January 7, 2010

California Race to the Top bills give parents more say in schools

"Shifting school reform to moms and dads is taking education policy in new direction", says Kirst.

The Sacramento Bee

California lawmakers have given parents of children in the state's lowest-performing schools sweeping new authority to improve their kids' education. But whether the new laws will lead to substantive reforms in many struggling schools depends on how many parents take advantage of their new powers.

The Senate approved the Race to the Top package of bills Wednesday, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger began his State of the State speech promising to sign them into law.

"In the past, parents had no power to bring about change in their children's schools, but that will now change," Schwarzenegger said. "Parents will now have the means to get rid of incompetent principals and take other necessary steps to improve their children's education."

The laws allow parents to pull their children out of the state's 1,000 lowest-scoring schools and move them to schools in other districts. They also allow parents to overhaul up to 75 chronically underperforming schools each year by collecting signatures from a majority of parents.

In shifting the burden of school reform from bureaucrats to moms and dads, lawmakers are taking education policy in a new direction, said <a href="">Michael Kirst</a>, a Stanford education professor who used to sit on the state Board of Education.

"Is it a dawning of a new era of parent power? That's the question," Kirst said.

"It really depends on how many parents can be organized to take action here, how well informed they can be about their choices and how much pressure they can put on their school boards."

The Race to the Top bills were prompted by the Obama administration, which is allowing states that adopt certain education policies to compete for $4.35 billion in federal stimulus funds. But there are strong echoes of the Bush administration in some provisions of California's bills.

Bush's signature education policy, the No Child Left Behind Act, calls for major overhauls at schools that don't meet federal testing benchmarks for multiple years. They can shut down, turn into charters or reopen with a new principal and teaching staff.

California's Race to the Top bills expand the ways an overhaul can be triggered by putting authority in parents' hands.

And it was No Child Left Behind – in 2002 – that introduced the idea that students in schools with the lowest test scores must be allowed to transfer to a different school within their district. California's new bills take that idea further by allowing students in those schools to transfer to a better school outside their district.

The two bills that make up California's Race to the Top package – SBX5 4 and SBX5 1 – were backed solidly by Republicans. Democrats were split, with their usual allies in the teachers unions opposing the bills. The Senate passed SBX5 4 on Wednesday by a vote of 23-11, and SBX5 1 by a slightly larger margin, 27-7.

Critics said California's new approach to allowing parents more school choice doesn't amount to much change. No Child Left Behind already allows kids to switch schools, and many districts, such as Sacramento City Unified, have an open-enrollment process the lets parents choose a school for their child outside their neighborhood.

"I think that's fairly cosmetic, because every school in the state is hurting for cash and searching desperately for quality teachers," said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at UC Berkeley. "We've got to strengthen the quality of all schools rather than allowing parents to search from among fairly mediocre alternatives in a lot of communities."

Debbie Look, director of legislation for the state PTA, said she wants parents to have more choice but doesn't think the Race to the Top bills achieve it.

"Is it an empty promise?" she said. "We're not convinced the funding mechanisms are in place to allow a student from a high poverty area (the transportation they'll need to get to a better school in another district)."

As it is, research on No Child Left Behind shows that only a very small number of students take advantage of their right to switch schools.

Torie England, principal of F.C. Joyce Elementary in North Highlands, said it's tough to get parents engaged.

Most of her students come from families that struggle with basic necessities. Many are homeless, sleeping in cars or staying with friends. Lots of her students live in single-parent homes with moms working multiple jobs to make ends meet. Other children are in foster care or have parents who don't speak English.

"We can't even get enough parents to fill up (the four seats on) our school site council," she said.

Getting enough parents on board to oust teachers or otherwise seriously transform the school seems unlikely, England said.

Jeff James, principal of Foothill Farms Junior High, said he welcomes more parental control.

"I want more parents involved in my school," he said. "It's the parents' right. It was their right before, now it's going to be a little easier. I have no problem with that. I work for the parents."

Schools in the Natomas Unified School District may be among the most affected by the piece of the bills that allows parents more power to force change at schools, including converting them charters.

The 12,000-student district has lost more than 2,000 students to charter schools within district boundaries. That has cost Natomas Unified millions of dollars in per-student funding.

District officials are concerned about the competition. They have made retaining and attracting students part of their budget recovery plan. 


Brooke Donald, Director of Communications, Stanford Graduate School of Education: 650-721-402,


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