Cal will enter second RTTT phase with district-only plan

Revamping a strategy in play when state leaders first hesitated on joining the federal Race to the Top competition, California will reportedly file for the second phase of the race in an application centered only around three of the state's biggest school districts.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has decided to move forward with a less ambitious program that would involve only students at L.A. Unified, Fresno and Long Beach school districts. Represenatives of the governor's office said they are not commenting on the story.

Although few details about the state's new application were released, the plan appears to be similar to a fall-back proposal state officials were preparing late last year when it was unclear if the governor and key legislative leaders would be willing to negotiate over the state's initial application to the $4 billion federal reform program.

Back in December the idea focused on the notion that just these three districts represented a big percentage of the state's student population and two of them - Fresno and Long Beach - have been partners for several years on innovative intervention efforts.

The plan also had the advantage of bypassing the Legislature, which might in itself provoke new political problems, but sidestepped the headache of taking the time and the uncertainty of negotiating with the sometimes polarized state house.

The Times reported that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan urged California's entry into the second phase of the race in numerous conversations with Schwarzenegger and other administration officials - but no promises were made.

California's first application fell woefully back in the pack at 27th.

The new plan is not without challenge. First, the state needs to meet a June 1 deadline for applying - although the fact that the new plan is based on existing materials will help a lot.

There is a key question about how the teachers in the three districts will react - lack of participation from unions was cited as a key problem with the state's first application and there will no doubt be enormous pressure from opposition leaders including the powerful California Teachers Association.

There are other implications too - adoption of national common core standards is one (see today's related story in Cabinet Report). The state needs to act by August 2 to adopt new standards in math and English language arts as mandated by state law - an enormously tight timeline especially since the final national standards may not be available until June.

There is also a lot of confusion related to the restructuring of the state's 5 percent lowest performing schools - a required action under Race to the Top. Legislation passed in January in support of the state's race application called for schools to be identified but no date certain for restructuring was included. Also the method for choosing the initial list of schools did not correspond with the state law and a new list may need to be generated.

Both issues might require new state legislation.

The state's initial application was for a $1 billion grant that would have been shared with districts statewide. It is not clear how or if a second phase grant - which cannot exceed $700 million - would be shared with other districts.

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