Calif. Assembly passes education reform bills

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The California Assembly on Tuesday passed two landmark education-reform bills that will give parents and state officials broad authority to overhaul the state’s worst schools.

Lawmakers acted under a tight deadline set by the Obama administration, which is pushing school-reform efforts through its Race to the Top initiative. At stake for California is up to $700 million in competitive grants.

The Assembly’s action sends the two bills to the state Senate, which is scheduled to consider them Wednesday. If approved, the legislative package will go to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has been pushing lawmakers to act since calling a special session in August.

He issued a statement after the vote urging the Senate to pass the legislation. He said it was needed to ensure California could submit a competitive application for a portion of the $4.3 billion being made available by the federal government.

Lawmakers who support the reforms said the legislation would provide a lifeline to parents and students in California’s poorest-performing school districts.

“It’s bold. It signifies a commitment to President Obama’s call to take drastic steps when our schools are failing,” said Assemblyman Juan Arambula, an independent from Fresno.

The legislation struck a compromise between different versions favored previously by the Assembly and Senate, although it includes controversial provisions on parental rights.

It requires persistently failing schools to make sweeping changes, including the possibility a school could be closed or converted to a charter school.

Parents at some of the worst schools would be empowered to demand changes and move their children to a better school. Those options are opposed by teachers unions.

“I believe that this program abandons our neighborhood schools, the children that live there and the people nearby,” said Assemblyman Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch. “Even worse, it abandons those very schools that are most in need of our help.”

Other lawmakers complained the Legislature was rushing into sweeping reforms that would have lasting consequences for what amounts to a relatively small pot of one-time money. K-12 education will get nearly $36 billion in this year’s general fund budget.