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U.S. schools chief: California a longshot for stimulus

Front page story. Notice the call for national standards and a national test. This is the consistent thread running through the Obama/Duncan message.

by Nanette Asimov

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan smiles as he speaks ... Education Secretary Arne Duncan talks with second-graders... Arne Duncan visits with Paul Revere second-graders. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visits with middl...

(05-22) 14:30 PDT SAN FRANCISCO -- A handful of states will soon be chosen to take part in an intense $5 billion experiment to improve schools that the federal government is calling the "Race to the Top" - but California will be lucky if it gets to participate, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Friday on a swing through San Francisco.

"Honestly, California has lost its way," Duncan told dozens of the state's mayors and education officials who packed into San Francisco City Hall on Friday morning.

He was even more blunt in admonishing a lunch crowd of educators and executives at the Palace Hotel on Market Street:

"Your state once had the best education system in the country. From cradle to career, you took care of your children. You made sure they were ready to enter your universities or be productive participants in the workforce.

"I ask you, is California going to lead the race to the top, or are you going to lead the retreat?"

Later, in a wide-ranging interview with The Chronicle, the nation's top educator also talked about changes he's expecting in the federal No Child Left Behind Education Act - including changing its Bush-era name, which he called "toxic."

He said the nation needs to have one set of high academic standards, rather than the 50 individual versions under the current law. He said there should also be one national exam aligned to those standards. None exists now.

Duncan endorsed higher salaries for good math and science teachers, and collecting student test data to learn which specific teachers are effective - an idea that earned swift criticism from local teachers - and said high turnover of superintendents is bad for students.

But the competition for Race to the Top money appeared to energize superintendents around the state, several of whom said they want California in the running. The money, to be awarded next fall and spring, is part of the $100 billion in federal stimulus money for education.

One energized schools chief was state Superintendent Jack O'Connell.

"We're planning on not only competing, but participating and succeeding in the Race to the Top," he told The Chronicle. "I agree with (Duncan) that this is the chance of a lifetime."

Duncan said the few states that win the competition-he wouldn't say how many that could be - will have to show that they are innovative and that their creative efforts succeed in helping low-performing students succeed.

California's fiscal crisis - in which schools are being forced to cut programs and lay off teachers - means the state has a long way to go before it is seen as a state that can show others how to do education right, he said.

"I have huge hopes for what California can do," he said. "I'd love to have California at the table, but California has things it needs to change."

For the state to come up with something worthy during a time of crisis "is an absolute test of leadership at every level," he said. "Some will be paralyzed. But you'll also see a flourishing of innovation."

The reforms he has in mind would transform schools into centers for community life, and would lengthen the school day so students could take classes for longer than the typical six hours, he said.

By contrast, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is proposing to cut short the school year by 7 1/2 days to help close the state's $21.3 billion budget gap.

San Francisco Superintendent Carlos Garcia, at the morning meeting, minced no words in an aside to a reporter: "Our entire state's going down the tubes."

He had asked Duncan if a good school district - say, San Francisco - might be able to win a piece of the $5 billion pie even if the state does not.

The answer was no.

Reactions to Duncan's remarks were generally positive, but not entirely.

Linda Plack, executive vice president of San Francisco's teachers union, was not pleased with Duncan's support for gathering data on the effectiveness of individual teachers.

"Gather data so you can decide who the good teachers are? Wrong!" she said. "You don't need to attack teachers when talking about schools. We need more data, but not to use it as a basis of teachers' pay."

Tony Thurmond, a school board member in the troubled West Contra Costa School District in Richmond, said he was encouraged by the secretary's visit. He had told Duncan that California educators "are in a panic mode."

"My goal (in meeting Duncan) was to make sure that he left with the feeling that a sense of urgency exists in California," Thurmond said. "I think he heard that."

Duncan said he will be touring the country to hear ideas about how to change No Child Left Behind. He said he supports O'Connell's push to reward schools for improvement. Such schools are often labeled as failures under the current system.

As for the law's new name, Duncan was unsure.

"It's got to be aspirational and inspirational," he said. "Maybe we could ask a smart 10-year-old for an idea."

E-mail Nanette Asimov at nasimov@sfchronicle.com.

— Nanette Asimov
San Francisco Chronicle


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