It took two-and-a-half months, but the U.S. Department of Education (ED) has approved California’s request to postpone the second group of school improvement grants by a year and carry over the $66 million in federal funding for the schools, known as Cohort 2.
The State Board of Education voted to seek the waiver at its July 13, 2011 meeting, after ED officials informed the California Department of Education (CDE) that none of the 58
schools that applied earlier this year met the criteria for funding. CDE staff told the Board they needed more time to review the proposals with the schools, discuss what changes have to be made, select the grantees, and give them a chance to develop their plans so they’re ready to go on the first day of the fall 2012 school year.
Those 58 schools that completed the lengthy and time-consuming application weren’t thrilled to hear that if and when the CDE received the waiver, it planned on reopening the application process to include all 96 schools on the state’s persistently failing schools list. Trouble is, critics say some of them are no longer failing.
Old scores no longer settled
SIG is a competitive federal program under Title I, providing $3.5 billion in grants, over three years, to the nation’s lowest-performing schools.
Under the state criteria, California identified the lowest performing five percent of schools based on their API scores. No district could have more than 10 percent of its schools qualify. It also excluded all schools that raised their API scores by 50 points or more over five years – a low barrier for a very low-performing school. The result was that the combination of factors led to some higher performing being included on the list and some lower-performing schools being removed.
Those measurements used to identify Cohort 2 schools go back nearly two years, said Doug McRae, a retired test publisher who’s been critical of the state’s SIG selection process since it began.
McRae proposes another formula that’s based both on API growth and on where the school actually ranks on the state’s API scale. He suggests if a school has met or exceeded its API growth targets for at least three years, and is no longer in Decile 1 on its current API ranking, it should be removed from the list and schools now in Decile 1 be added. He dropped the data into an Excel spreadsheet (click on + sign several times to enlarge) to show that, using his measures, only 20 of the 96 schools would still be eligible to apply for SIG. A third of the 96 schools are no longer even in Decile 1.
“If they made what California expects them to make in growth over the last three years, my viewpoint is it’s kind of hard to call them persistently low achieving,” said McRae.
CDE officials say changing the rubric would be a more complicated sell to the U.S. Department of Education than a waiver to postpone the selection process and could require rewriting part of the state proposal. “This is still Cohort 2, even though it was delayed by a few months to do the request for applications again,” said Julie Baltazar, the administrator in CDE’s accountability and improvement division. “We’re not reapplying for the grant, we’re just amending the time line.”
Even though API status isn’t included in the evaluation, some districts have decided not to pursue funding for schools that have been improving without the federal money and its concomitant regulations.
Los Angeles Unified School District has nearly two dozen schools on the list, and spokesperson Donna Muncey said the district has been reviewing their recent growth with an eye toward reducing the field. “We do not anticipating submitting an application for each of the 22 schools,” Muncey said. “Some of the schools have been making good progress in their efforts to improve teaching, learning and student achievement.”
A hiccup in continued funding
There is a possibility that it could be a short-lived victory for Cohort 2 grantees. As of now, the CDE only has money in hand for the first year of what’s supposed to be a three-year program.
Baltazar said politics and the economy could intervene by either reducing funds for the second and third years, or cutting them altogether. “If the federal government didn’t give us any money, then it would end,” she said.
Cohort 1 schools are facing a different hurdle. They’re in a holding pattern, waiting to learn when, or if, the state will release year two funds. California has the money, but the State Board voted, at that same July 13th meeting, to make the money “contingent on schools implementing all required elements of the SIG program on the first day of school year 2011-12.”
At issue is what the federal government means by increased learning time. CDE staff determine last summer that almost none of the school programs in Cohort 1 met the requirements. The catch was that ED wasn’t exactly forthcoming with an explanation. State education officials have called every school to discuss what they have to do to get their funds released. So far, no money has changed hands.
“It’s been frustrating not having the money approved, but the district is going ahead as if it were,” said Sandra Gonering, interim SIG administrator for San Bernardino City Unified School District which received $57.6 million for 11 schools for three years.
Nevertheless, she said the district is confident they’ll get the funds.
At Mission High School in San Francisco, principal Eric Guthertz said the State Board’s protracted selection process for Cohort 1 turned out to be a plus. He said the money came so late last year that they have enough carryover to get through the first part of this year.