For a minute there, it looked as if California might finally begin stitching up a few gaping wounds in its education system. State officials had spent much of the winter drafting reforms included in a proposal that they believed would charm Obama's Department of Education into handing over up to $700 million in “Race to the Top” funds.

“I thought we had a really good shot,” says Rick Miller, then–deputy superintendent of the Department of Education, who helped write the application to the feds.

Miller and lots of influential players, from the media to politicians, were blindly optimistic about where California stood with Obama and his education czar, Arne Duncan. The L.A. Times offered a sunny outlook, reporting: “California does have some advantages going into the competition. … Some parts of California's application could set it apart.”

Then in early March, California didn't even make a list of 15 state finalists plus Washington D.C. “I was extremely disappointed,” says Lydia Grant, a parent battling L.A. Unified officials over safety and truancy issues at Mount Gleason Middle School in Sunland-Tujunga.

The other shoe dropped on March 29, when only two of the 16 finalists were awarded a combined $600 million — Tennessee and Delaware. The White House released its scoring for all 41 states who applied and explained the classroom reforms it's expecting before the feds award any further carrots.

California, it turns out, wasn't in the ballpark. Yet there has been little discussion of what went wrong here. Some who wrote the application say they did everything right.

“It's quite frustrating for California to go so far above and beyond other states with our reforms and then be denied any funding,” says Teala Schaff, aide to Senator Gloria Romero.

How did California swing for the fences and miss the ball completely, while 15 states were taken seriously — and two won hundreds of millions of dollars?

First, there's cooperation — California's lack of it. In Delaware, every single teachers union got behind that state's proposed reforms. In Tennessee, more than 90 percent of unions gave a thumbs-up to reforms proposed by Tennessee lawmakers.

In contentious California, just 26 percent of teachers unions backed the state Legislature's reforms. The large and very powerful United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), whose teachers educate one in every 10 children in California, opposes the reforms. Romero, who is running for state superintendent of public education, was gutsy in pushing for many changes — but was forced by teachers unions and other legislators to water down her proposals.

Schaff criticizes UTLA, the California Federation of Teachers and other unions for crippling the process by obsessing over their own financial interests. “They're running a business operation,” says Schaff. “They don't represent the teachers in the classrooms.”

Strife among Democratic legislators added to the reform-by-committee mess. Cameron Smyth, a Republican assemblyman from Santa Clarita who has worked with parents on school reform, says, “One of the ironies of Race to the Top is that you had the Republicans lining up with Obama, and the Democrats having issues with the administration's policy.”

Many say that in choosing Delaware and Tennessee, the White House is sending a clear message: Only states whose teachers unions and school district officials stop bickering and embrace change will get Race to the Top money.

But that's just one reason California crashed and burned. “It's convenient to hold up 'stakeholder support' as an excuse,” says Andy Smarick, a former federal deputy assistant secretary of education, “when the real issue is how willing the state is to be bold.”

Smarick says California's plan was fundamentally “weak” — it failed to address big problems like its widely pilloried lifelong-tenure system, which makes it almost impossible to fire a failing California teacher. On that and such reforms as merit pay for teachers, “California didn't take the big, bold steps that were necessary.”

Miller agrees. “I've read most of the finalists' applications,” says Miller, whose partners in the application process included California State Board of Education President Ted Mitchell and Kathy Gaither, Schwarzenegger's education undersecretary. “Other states had a more specific set of proposals.”

Take California's proposed teacher “evaluation” system, desperately needed in cities like L.A. where poorly performing teachers waltz into tenured positions and can't be ousted — and are allowed to waste children's vital classroom years (see L.A. Weekly's February 11 cover feature, “Dance of the Lemons”).

Duncan insists that student test scores be used to spot those teachers who produce academically failing kids, particularly since within each school, some teachers rack up solid academic successes right down the hall from classrooms mired in failure.

“We said okay,” says Miller. “But we didn't say to what degree student test scores would be considered” — leaving an opening for California's stubborn teachers unions to severely restrict the use of test scores.

And while California's application called for teachers to be observed in class — not exactly a shattering reform — it was silent on how to rate them. “Other states fleshed out … what they're looking for,” says Miller.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has made many visits to Washington. Yet in all that time, California's political leaders failed to realize that Duncan wants teachers unions and reticent school districts brought into the reform fold.

A new round of applications for Race to the Top funds is due June 1. Observers doubt that California will shape up in time. Smarick, now a fellow at education-focused Thomas B. Fordham Institute, says California's score of 336 was more than 100 points below the two winners, and “they've got 60 days” to address that.

Smyth warns against repeating the tug-of-war in Sacramento, with teachers unions attacking Romero's bolder ideas and legislators chiming in, giving “the impression that California doesn't have its act together.”

The grim reality is that even if California wins $1 billion — the largest amount the state could snag from Race to the Top — it'd be just a dab of glue for California's broken teaching system.

LAUSD board member Steve Zimmer tells L.A. Weekly the U.S. Senate no longer has the stomach for a $20 billion education bill that would have helped bail out L.A. schools. The Senate can't get the votes because its members are unwilling to spend more in the wake of ObamaCare.

“This money is life-or-death for us,” says Zimmer. Fiscal forecasters in the California Department of Education say LAUSD faces $6.4 billion in “financial obligations” through 2012 that, “based on current projections,” the district may not meet.

Erin Dean, a teacher at Grape Street Elementary, in a tough, working-class area of Watts, guesses it would take $1 million to recoup recent state budget cuts. “Last year, we lost six teachers,” says Dean. “This year, we could lose four more. We still have the same amount of children.”

Help from the feds would be welcome, but for California to win the money “presumes that you have some good things already in place,” says John Rogers, director of UCLA's Institute for Democracy Education and Access. Race to the Top funding is essentially “venture capital to try out new ideas. That theory doesn't hold well in places like California, where the infrastructure itself is collapsing.”

Still, a recent shift inside L.A. Unified could make California more competitive in the second round of Race to the Top. Following exposés published by both the Los Angeles Times and L.A. Weekly that detailed LAUSD's inability to oust incompetent and even sexually misbehaving teachers, a local task force is working to overhaul the woebegone teacher-evaluation process. Headed by California Board of Education chief Mitchell, it seeks higher salaries for better teachers and wants to stop LAUSD's practice of granting lifelong tenure to unexamined, green teachers.

Teachers unions such as UTLA are expected to strenuously fight the ideas.

Max Taves contributed to this report.

LA Weekly