California is one step closer to education reform

January 5, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
California is about to give parents the power to fire principals and teachers, under a controversial education reform plan. On Tuesday, lawmakers moved closer to passing a plan based on the Obama administration's proposal, called "Race to the Top." It would give the state a shot at $700 million in federal money.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger called a special session on this special education plan back in August and now four months later, the state is two weeks away from the application's deadline. If two bills don't pass, California could lose out on hundreds of millions of dollars at a time when our schools need it the most.

One proposal allows students in the 1,000 worst schools in California to choose a different school. The other allows parents some control to close their school, fire teachers and principals or change the campus into a charter school.

Schwarzenegger urged lawmakers to pass the last remaining pieces of legislation, or else California cannot compete for part of the Obama administration's $4.3 billion in "Race to the Top" funds.

"It's the most important thing for them, to make their decision to just think about children, not about the special interest groups that are pushing them," he said.

The special interest groups, including the powerful California Teachers Association, oppose open enrollment and greater parental power.

Privately, Democrats have been reluctant to cross the union because this is an election year and they need their campaign donations. Publicly, they worry what open enrollment would mean for poor performing schools.

"Say, 500 students are in one school and 100 happen to leave. The remaining 400 students, what about them? And they're going to lose a lot of the resources they need to improve that school in that neighborhood," Assemblyman Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch said.

Torlakson also wonders about poor families who wouldn't be able to choose a better school further away because districts can no longer afford bussing.

Still, many students who know firsthand what it's like to be in a bad school want a choice to be in a learning environment instead of one full of fights.

"We didn't really have a lot of time to get an education because the teachers always had to go and talk to students and send them out," eighth-grade student Yessika Delagua said.

"It makes me feel like we're free, not like we're trapped," eighth-grade student Amanda Coleman said.

The Assembly Education Committee passed the bills earlier on Tuesday. They are now in the Appropriations Committee.

The governor will deliver his final state of the state address on Wednesday at the Capitol. His office says he will also call a special legislative session in the next few days to deal with the state's multi-billion dollar deficit for the remainder of this fiscal year.

Also on Friday, the governor will submit his budget plan for the next fiscal year.