Some folks might have thought L.A. Superintendent Ramon Cortines was grandstanding a bit when he sent a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan last month asking that the 688,000-student district be considered a contender for billions of federal stimulus dollars even if California were to be deemed unqualified to apply. After all, the rules are pretty clear that states are the ones that are eligible to apply for the $4.35 billion Race to the Top windfall, not school districts.
But in a chat this week with Cortines (who insists that you call him Ray), I realized how determined he is to get a piece of that money for L.A. Unified, the nation's second-largest district, whose budget has taken a beating.
First, Cortines told me he hadn't heard a peep from Duncan's office since sending the letter. But he's confident that his plea can't be ignored. He's got size on his side.
"Look, this district has a larger population than some states have," he said. "How can they ignore that?" Los Angeles Unified is also home to the largest number of English-language learners in the country, according to Ed Week's ELL guru, Mary Ann Zehr. But L.A. is also viewed as one of the more sluggish urban districts when it comes to reform, though a proposed policy set for a school board vote next week--which Cortines is supporting--could help change that perception.
For now, Cortines says he's pinning his hopes on Gov. Arnold Schwarzeneggers' ordering of a special session on education next month that, among other things, will force lawmakers to consider rewriting the state law that currently prohibits linking student performance data with teacher evaluations.
But Cortines, a veteran of education politicking, surely knows there are no guarantees that the lame duck Republican governor will prevail. You can be sure a mighty showdown is in the offing when the California Teachers Association--an ardent opponent of rewriting the current law--starts to call in its chits to all those Democrats (the party in the legislative majority) who gladly accept the union's money and its get-out-the-vote ground troops during elections.
As a last resort, Cortines said he'll round up supporters and head to Washington to lobby for his district. "If we are cut out of this, they are going to have to deal with us when I lead a delegation to the Secretary's office," he said. It's a few weeks old now, but Charlie Barone's take on this whole situation is still worth reading.