News Analysis: CA’s budget woes complicate Race to the Top entries

California's continued failure to win a federal Race to the Top grant may as much as any other factor reflect the state's continued fiscal troubles - a fact that may also jeopardize its pending application for a $100 million early learning grant.

Last week, the Brown administration and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson were stunned to learn that California's application for a $49 million race grant has been rejected as incomplete by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

The grant, after all, had been offered as something of a done deal for states that had lost out in the far more lucrative second round of the Race to the Top and were willing to endorse essentially the same conditions.

Federal officials said the winners had committed to goals around enhancing data systems, raising academic standards; improving principal and teacher support and evaluation systems; and implementing school interventions in under-performing schools.

In submitting a simple two-page letter to the U.S. Department of Education, the governor and Torlakson appeared to make the required assurances - but there was also a clear caveat when it came to how much the state would ensure that the reforms would be carried out.

It cannot afford to implement these reforms statewide, though, nor can it compel local education agencies to implement them," they wrote. "Numerous LEAs are prepared, however, to implement several of the reforms as described below as part of the Race to the Top Round Three application."

Standing behind the latest application were seven lead districts that comprise the California Office to Reform Education or CORE, who had voluntarily committed to the federal reform goals joining the round two competition.

Both Torlakson and Michael Kirst, president of the California State Board of Education issued statements shortly after the rejection notice was made public, expressing frustration with Duncan's decision.

"I had hoped the federal Administration would be mindful of the financial emergency facing California's schools and the severe constraints it has placed on state resources," said Torlakson.

Kirst agreed: "California's application stressing local innovation was unique in the federal competition. It did not rely on centralized top-down state policies or mandates."

The references to the budget restraints are key and may also foreshadow the challenge facing the state's application for a $100 million early learning grant under the latest federal Race to the Top competition.

In both applications, Gov. Jerry Brown used clear language in restricting the state's commitment to providing the money needed to implement the federal reforms on the local level.

In submitting a 225-page application for the Early Learning Challenge, Brown outlined a novel program largely relying on an existing network of preschool programs operated by local First 5 commissions. Brown was also careful, however, to note that the proposal could not add any new costs to the state.

Secretary Duncan issued no public explanation why the California application had been considered incomplete last week but the response from California officials was telling. While many other states are facing enormous budget shortfalls, California is further challenged by the state constitution that calls for reimbursements to local agencies mandated by the Legislature to undertake new programs or responsibilities.

Last week's application noted that the state could not "nor can it compel local education agencies to implement" the federal reform goals. But it left out the fact that the Legislature could - by passing a law requiring it. The rub, of course, is that if the Legislature were to do so the state would also have to pay for it - something Brown knows the state cannot do.