State Board gets tough with SIG

In a day fraught with finger-pointing and defensiveness, the State Board of Education (SBE) on Wednesday put 90* schools on notice that their second-year funding for the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) program is not a sure thing.

Faced with what State Board President Michael Kirst termed a “searing” report from the U.S. Education Department, the SBE voted unanimously to withhold funds from the original SIG schools, known as Cohort I, until they’re in full compliance with federal requirements.

The 21-page report (which we reported on here), presents findings from monitoring teams sent to California by the U.S. Department of Education (ED). It paints a picture of schools that have not made good on promises in their applications, and have yet to replace their principals and half their faculty as required by some of the reform models.

SIG is a competitive federal program providing $3.5 billion in Title I grants over three years to improve the nation’s persistently low-achieving schools.

But even California’s selection process came under fire. ED cited the entire California Department of Education (CDE) for an inadequate job of carrying out the original application process.

“To me, this is very concerning,” Kirst told state ed officials overseeing the SIG program. “Since we’re part of the problem, and this is a very negative report, I want to hear how you plan to respond.  This is not good news.”

CDE staff, in turn, placed some of the blame on the schools for misinterpreting the rules, some on the federal government for not being clear enough, and some on the state legislature for not allocating enough money for oversight. Staff mentioned several times that the legislature will not approve travel money to visit the schools. Their only first-hand look was with the federal teams last March.

“I can tell you that ED and CDE staff were speechless to see that large districts had implemented nothing that was required,” said Christine Swenson, director of CDE’s District and School Improvement Division.

Swenson reported that only about 10 percent of the schools had spent at least half of their grant money by March 31st, more than halfway through the school year. A few had hardly touched the funds.

Schools defend their honor

Some school district officials bristled at that and similar comments, arguing that if they didn’t comply it’s because the rules weren’t clear and no one told them they were out of compliance until just a few weeks ago.

“These applications for Cohort I were turned in over a year ago to CDE; they’ve had plenty of time to look at them,” said Nader Delnavaz, Administrative Coordinator of  Secondary Programs in Los Angeles Unified School District. Now, at the cusp of the second year, they may have to lay off the new staff hired under the grant, such as intervention counselors, because the funding isn’t assured.

Board President Kirst said he understands their frustration, but says the state is under a lot of pressure. “I think that what appeared today was a major breakdown in the implementation of  an important federal program,” said Kirst. “We got a significant rebuke from the federal government and we felt we had to act in order to show that we’re really trying to implement the federal law with integrity.”

How long may they waive?

Schools applying for funds in Cohort II also didn’t get their wish on Wednesday. The SBE voted to ask the feds for a one-year waiver in order to avoid a repeat of the same mistakes and miscommunication that occurred with the first group of grantees.

There’s a strong likelihood that ED will approve it since it was their idea in the first place. Swenson said the delay will give staff time to work with schools on the technical aspects of their proposals.

Some of the more than 50 schools that had already submitted applications for the 2011-12 academic year asked for priority consideration since they’ve already negotiated with their unions over staffing and work hours.  Swenson answered that not only won’t the federal government approve that, but ED officials said there isn’t a single Cohort II proposal from California that’s acceptable as written.

* One of the original 91 SIG grantees, Glenbrook Middle School in the Mount Diablo school district, has closed.

Author: Kathryn Baron

Kathryn Baron, co-writer of TOP-Ed (Thoughts On Public Education in California), has been covering education in California for about 15 years; most of that time at KQED Public Radio where her reports aired on The California Report as well as various National Public Radio programs. She also wrote for magazines and newspapers before going virtual as producer and editor at The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Kathy grew up in New York in a family of teachers. She moved to California for graduate school and after spending one sunny New Year’s Day riding her bicycle in the foothills, decided to stay. She and her husband live in Belmont. They have two children, one in college and one in high school.

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