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State bills pass to qualify for education funds

January 5, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake as California lawmakers try to get into the Race to the Top Fund. Two measures passed Tuesday night to enable the state to qualify to apply for the federal school funding program.Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger called a special session on these special funds back in August. Four months later and the application deadline is two weeks away. If two bills don't pass, California could lose out on hundreds of millions of dollars at a time when 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.

Governor Arnold 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 available in the Race to the Top Fund.

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

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 a school, and a hundred choose 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," said Assm. Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch).

Torlakson also wonders about poor families who wouldn't be able to choose a better school farther 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 education in because the teachers always had to go and talk to students and send them out," said 8th-grade student Yessika Delagua.

"It makes us feel like we're free, not like all trapped," said 8th-grader Amanda Coleman.

The Assembly Education Committee passed the bills Tuesday. The Appropriations Committee in an evening floor vote passed the education reform bills.