QEIA’s early promise (and its faults)

The California Teachers Association is citing positive early results from an eight-year program to improve some of the state’s lowest performing schools. But the $3 billion Quality Education Investment Act, which the union pushed to create, is an expensive reform that combines smaller classes and other measures. Assuming QEIA does prove effective, it won’t easy to determine why.

The California Teachers Association has issued early data pointing to positive results from an eight-year, $3 billion program for low-performing schools that the union fought hard to create and is fighting equally hard to preserve. Just last week – four months into the fiscal year and after some dragged-out battles – the Assembly passed a bill securing full funding for another year.

I have been a skeptic of the program– the Quality Education Investment Act — since it was created in 2006, although I applaud the CTA for going to the mat on behalf of low-income schools. I have had two problems with QEIA:

  • It  benefited only a third of the approximately 1,500 schools in the bottom two deciles of Academic Performance Index (API) scores.
  • It also committed the bulk of the money to class-size reduction, even though smaller classes, while popular with teachers and parents, is the most expensive school reform, with largely unproven results. The CTA disagrees with most researchers on this key point and cites studies showing gains from smaller classes.
  • Now add a third problem: Money is so tight that, under the just passed ABx3 56, QEIA will be funded this year in part through an advance on what’s left of  federal stimulus money for schools. That means that non-QEIA districts and schools – many just as worthy of additional aid as QEIA schools — will get shaved more than they thought.  And it means the funding cliff will be even steeper when stimulus money runs out.

A detailed explanation of the complex maneuvering to fund QEIA this year  — what the California School Boards Association calls  “shell games” — can be found here.

Assuming academic progress, the challenge will be to figure out which factors – smaller classes, professional development, or other programs that the schools instituted on their own – may have contributed to higher achievement.

The 499 QEIA schools will receive  $500 for each K-3 pupil, $900 for each student in grades 4-8, and $1000 for each student in grades 9-12 for six more years. They have discretion over some money but must agree to hire more counselors,  keep small classes and commit to more training of teachers and principals. In return, they must beat their API growth targets averaged over the first three years.

In the first full year of funding, most did that. According to the CTA, 351 of the 499 QEIA schools – 70 percent — made their target API score, compared with 57 percent of all schools in the state.  Seven QEIA schools made the state goal of 800 on the API, and the API scores of 51 schools – 10 percent of the total — grew at least 51 points. None of these were in Santa Clara County, where the QEIA schools include four San Jose Unified Elementary Schools (one made the target);  three Alum Rock middle schools (all  made the target); and one Alum Rock elementary, Chavez, which also made the goal.

It’s obviously too soon to declare statewide success. The results must hold up over time and under hard analysis. But, assuming academic progress, the challenge will be to figure out which factors – smaller classes, professional development, or other programs that the schools instituted on their own – may have contributed to higher achievement. (For a fraction of QEIA’s cost, the state, for example, could afford to pay for an extended day in every low-performing school in the state – and probably get more bang for the buck.)

The University of California has a contract for an initial study, due out early next year, but the Legislature has yet to allot money for the full-scale evaluation that a $3 billion expenditure demands.

QEIA is the product of a court settlement in 2006  between the CTA and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger after the union sued rightfully – and successfully — to recover Proposition 98 money from 2004-’05 that the governor had withheld. The Legislature subsequently put the eight-year program into law.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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