To education reformers, a $4.3 billion school funding competition from the Obama administration seemed like just the push California needed to start making long overdue changes to restore academic luster to the state's public schools.
But the drive to dramatically turn around a faltering system that serves more than 6 million children has run into political reality in a Legislature dominated by special interests. The result could leave the state with the nation's largest public school system ill-positioned to compete for the so-called Race to the Top funds.
Officials estimate California stands to gain up to $700 million.
Lawmakers meeting in a special session on education called by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are considering competing Democratic bills. Both are intended to clear the way for California's federal application and to deal with some of the same issues, such as increasing the number of charter schools, revamping state tests and restructuring the worst-of-the-worst schools.
But how they propose to reach those goals is vastly different, and it's unclear whether the versions can be reconciled in time for the state to meet a Jan. 19 federal application deadline.
A Schwarzenegger-backed bill by state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, and the state superintendent of public instruction gives parents more say in what happens to failing schools and makes it easier to evaluate teachers and principals based on student achievement. It also would let parents move their children out of failing districts.
After narrowly passing the state Senate in November, with several Democrats opposing it or opting to sit out the vote, that measure is now stalled in an Assembly committee. One of the most powerful and well-funded political interests in the state, the California Teachers Association, is lobbying against it.
The teachers union instead backs different legislation offered by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica.
Reform advocates say that legislative package, which passed the Assembly on Thursday, does not go nearly far enough to fix California schools. Because of that, they say it wouldn't stand a chance in a competition against other large states such as Florida and Texas, which already have made bold school reforms.
Schwarzenegger has supported many of the changes included in the federal guidelines since taking office but has not had the political muscle to get the changes through a Legislature controlled by Democrats, who receive campaign funding from the teachers union.
He said he will veto the Assembly legislation if it reaches his desk, although that is unlikely because the Senate already has passed much tougher reform measures.
"This is a Race to the Top, not a race to mediocrity or the status quo," Schwarzenegger said.
The Republican governor has been blunt about the Assembly's effort, saying its Democratic majority simply wants to water down the tougher Senate legislation. The Assembly bill, he said, won't provide a real shot at the federal money in a state that has sustained billions of dollars in education cuts during the last three fiscal years.
"The kids and education need every single dollar," Schwarzenegger said.
California's education system was once considered a national model that bred a generation of scientists and entrepreneurs, but the state has fallen to near the bottom among states in school funding and academics, earning a D in academic achievement this year from Education Week magazine's annual national schools survey. Students perform below the national average on nearly all measures, with black, Hispanic and poor children faring worst.
Nearly 2,800 of its schools are considered to be failing by federal standards.
The dispute over whether to enter the federal competition and, if so, how strong the reforms should be is dividing Democratic allies and discouraging reformers who had hoped for historic change.
Margaret Fortune, a California State University trustee who once served as an education adviser to Schwarzenegger, said she has become disillusioned. Many lawmakers put partisan interests ahead of reasonable changes in school policy, she said.
"If they were responsible leaders, they would stand up and say, 'You know what? We're leading a broken system, so we need to turn around and fix it, because this is shameful,'" said Fortune, who now runs an independent teacher-training program and has launched several charter schools.
Representatives of the California Teachers Association and other influential education groups, including the California School Boards Association, argue that the state should approach Race to the Top cautiously. They say lawmakers should not rush headlong into major reforms for what amounts to a relatively small pot of one-time federal money.
California, which will spend $50 billion on K-12 education this fiscal year, stands to receive between $300 million and $700 million if its application is successful.
The teachers association opposes provisions in the Senate bill that would allow parents to transfer students in persistently failing schools to other districts, expand the number of charter schools without imposing new restrictions on them and allow parents to lobby for closure or conversion to a charter when schools don't improve.
The union says the Senate legislation lacks legislative oversight in making the changes.
Patricia Rucker, a legislative advocate for the CTA, urged lawmakers during a hearing on both bills to "resist the temptation to simply race for dollars for the prestige of winning an award and a competition and instead (ask) what is the overall goal of education reform in California?"
Many reform advocates say slow progress isn't acceptable in a state where one in five high school students drops out.
"I just don't have the patience for incremental change any more," said Assemblyman Juan Arambula, an independent from Fresno who left the Democratic caucus earlier this year. He sided with Republicans in opposing the Assembly bill and backing the more stringent Senate version.
Some Democratic lawmakers, particularly Hispanics and blacks, are feeling pressure from both sides: the teachers union, which opposes dramatic changes, and community groups that are frustrated by a persistent racial achievement gap.
Alice Huffman, president of the state NAACP and a former political director of the CTA, testified before the Assembly Education Committee that reforming the state's faltering schools is an urgent civil rights issue. She said she has nieces and nephews who have graduated from California schools yet cannot read and write.
"I'm just going to say that if we don't get this done, we have really blown it one more time," she said.
The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office is urging lawmakers to take the Obama administration's education reforms seriously, warning that they are likely to provide the framework for new federal education guidelines, putting at stake billions of dollars in federal money.