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State senators listened to clashing views about whether President Obama has the right plan to reform schools in a public hearing today at the University of San Diego.

The hearing was centered on whether San Diego Unified and other local districts are ready for Race to the Top, a second batch of stimulus dollars that the federal government is awarding on a competitive basis, and only to school districts that meet specific requirements.

One of those requirements, that states not bar schools from linking test scores to teacher or principal evaluations, has spurred heated debate in the world school reform. Teachers unions are wary of that move because it seems to open the door for merit pay, an idea that they staunchly oppose. Lawmakers have approved a bill allowing test scores and evaluations to be linked, which could make the state eligible for the federal funds.

“This is not just about money,” said State Senator Gloria Romero, who held the hearing. She has proposed another bill that would go a step further, pushing the state to create a data-driven way to evaluate teacher performance and lifting limits on the number of charter schools.”This is about vision.”

That debate played out in a half-full USD auditorium where state Senators Romero and Mark Wyland listened to superintendents, parents, union leaders and school board members explain their takes on Race to the Top. One of the first to speak was outgoing San Diego Unified Superintendent Terry Grier, who said that while the school district had done innovative things such as starting a virtual high school and infusing classrooms with technology, it fell “woefully short” in other ways.

Grier said the district has no way to attract the best teachers to the neediest schools. New teachers tend to cluster in poorer areas of the district, he said. Grier rejected the idea that teachers should get tenure after two years, saying it was too short. And he complained that the district is loath to close schools with poor performance. His words were echoed by County Superintendent Randolph Ward and others.

“To ignore objective data (in evaluating teachers) simply defies logic,” Ward said.

But others challenged the idea that San Diego schools should dramatically change their ways to snag the stimulus dollars. Teachers union President Camille Zombro said the law would only focus schools more heavily on standardized tests and ignores the reforms her members say are most important: smaller classes, stability in staffing and better staffing of nurses and counselors. School board member Richard Barrera was critical of the emphasis on linking test scores to evaluation and pay.

“These are theories. They are not based in research. They are not based in evidence,” Barrera said. “There is no credible evidence for pay-for-performance.”

And an entirely different perspective came from Larry Rosenstock, chief executive officer of the High Tech High schools, who said he wasn’t expecting the stimulus money to change schools dramatically. The idea of merit pay, he said, is just a way of dodging the larger issue of “lifetime employment” for teachers, who cannot be terminated without a long and involved process.

“It’s not going to be a race. And we’re not going to get to the top,” Rosenstock said. He added, “We’re tinkering around the edges and I’m really greatly concerned about that.”

For a lengthier rundown of what was said and who said it, check out my Twitter feed.

EMILY ALPERT

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