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California's education reforms hand more power to parents

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an education reform bill Thursday that lets California vie for federal 'Race to the Top' grants. The reforms, opposed by teachers' unions, would let parents force changes in failing schools.

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From left, eighth graders Jose Ortiz, Anthony Leon, Caroline Vega and Oasis Massey, listen to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger during his visit to the Rosa Parks Middle School, in Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP

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California is now competitive in President Obama’s national $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” education competition. After six months of bipartisan massaging, hand-wringing, and compromise, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed reform legislation Thursday that will ensure the state can vie for up to $700 million in federal funding for its schools.

But the debate over the reforms – which puts more power in the hands of parents – spilled over into the signing at the Mary McLeod Bethune Middle School in south central Los Angeles. Both teachers unions opposing the reforms and parents groups supporting the bill showed up to make their voices heard.

Mr. Obama created the Race to the Top education fund last year as part of the stimulus bill investment in critical sectors. The fund rewards states that create the conditions for education innovation and reform and improve student outcomes and graduation rates.

California could not apply for the funds because of an educational “firewall” that kept its students' test scores from being used to evaluate teachers. Two bipartisan measures have cleared away that hurdle and adopted a “parent trigger” that will let 50 percent of parents of students at failing schools demand changes in staff, leadership, and how the school operates. That includes getting the school to close or inviting a charter school to take over from district administrators.

Teachers unions have opposed the legislation, which many say would have been unthinkable before the Race to the Top fund.

But parents' groups have fought back and were very vocal at Wednesday’s signing.

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