Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: We can deliver quality education

California once was a model of innovation. Our workforce was once among the most competitive in the world, asserting its relevance by continually adapting and reinventing itself.

But in recent years, California has missed opportunities to reform our educational system to make sure that our students are prepared to carry on this legacy of innovation and global competition.

Now the Legislature has a unique opportunity to be part of a national movement to promote excellence in our schools. The Obama administration has called on California to reform our education codes to focus more on parental choice and student outcomes. Many Republican and Democrat legislators are coming together to insist that status-quo politics should no longer stand in the way of student achievement.

Through a national program called Race to the Top, the federal government has created the largest competitive education fund in U.S. history, with $4 billion available to states.

And the timing could not be more important for our schools. Faced with a projected $20 billion state deficit, legislators must come together at every opportunity to secure funding for the classroom.

Unfortunately, California is not currently considered competitive for the Race to the Top funds. The Obama administration has stated that California will be in a better position to compete for $700 million in one-time funds if we can demonstrate a strong commitment to lasting school reform. To do this, lawmakers need to act quickly to pass much needed changes in state law.

The Legislature already made some progress this session, by fixing a 2006 law that prohibited policy makers from using student performance data in evaluating teachers on a statewide basis. This law was in stark contrast to the goals of Race to the Top, which seeks to use data to target teachers who are having great success, as well as those who are struggling.

While fixing this single flaw in our education system was a victory, the state needs to seize this opportunity to also pass other needed reforms and allow California to better compete for federal funds. We don’t need to just be eligible to compete; we must be the most competitive if we are to win in the Race to the Top.

We also must focus on improving consistently low-performing schools. To do this, we need to give parents more tools to be involved in their child’s education, and the power to demand reform if their child’s school is failing.

A bipartisan bill that passed the Senate would force a district to initiate major changes at a school as soon as parents equaling half the students attending that school sign a petition demanding change. This gives the power to the parents, where it rightfully belongs.

California must also remove the senseless cap on the number of charters that can exist. These schools have proven to be beacons of hope, often times in areas where traditional schools have consistently failed. Charter school innovation must be encouraged, not stifled.

Finally, not only teachers but also school administrators must be held accountable for student performance. Success and progress should be encouraged and rewarded, and failure should not go unnoticed.

California is facing a $21 billion budget deficit in the coming year. We literally cannot afford to pass up on $700 million to encourage and promote innovation in our schools because of flawed policies that make us uncompetitive for federal grants. Given the education cuts that have already been made and the very difficult funding decisions that lay ahead, our classrooms need every dollar we can find.

The state Senate has already passed a bipartisan education bill supported by school reform advocates and Gov. Schwarzenegger. It is imperative that the Assembly act immediately to pass this bill to align our state with the goals laid out by President Obama. Republicans and Democrats alike must come together behind this bill in order to make California more competitive to receive our share of Race to the Top funds in time to meet the Jan. 19 deadline to apply for the grants.

Even during these tough economic times, we can improve our schools by reforming the way they are run. California can’t afford to lose out on $700 million because the status-quo is too politically difficult to effect reform. By promoting innovation and strengthening accountability, we can deliver quality education to California students. Editor’s note: State Assembly members were scheduled to vote today on Race to the Top legislation.

Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, represents the 33rd Assembly District.