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Urban School Leaders Hear Federal Take on Early Ed., Turnarounds

Washington

The nation's school districts would be the main administrators, and in some states the main providers, of early-learning services in the expansion of preschool for 4-year-olds envisioned by the White House, administration officials told urban school leaders at a conference here on Monday. The White House also seems to envision a full-day preschool program to serve all low- and moderate-income families with 4-year-olds.

"We want to go beyond the three-hour-a-day preschool model," Roberto Rodriguez, a key White House adviser on education issues told me after addressing superintendents, administrators, and school board members from some of the largest school systems. Rodriguez said that under the White House plan, school districts will "play a principal role" in delivering high-quality preschool services, but that the early-learning initiative would not require districts to be the sole providers. Many states use multiple providers to deliver preschool services, which would not change, Rodriguez said.

Speaking to leaders gathered for the Council of the Great City Schools annual legislative conference, Rodriguez, and Deborah Delisle, the assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education in the U.S. Department of Education, gave a few more snippets of information about the preschool initiative. The administration is proposing a partnership with states through a cost-sharing arrangement to extend federal funds to reach all 4-year-olds whose families earn at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. How much money would be invested by the federal government, along with many other details, won't be out for public view until President Barack Obama unveils his new federal budget for fiscal 2014, which begins Oct. 1, Delisle said.

That didn't stop members of the council from asking lots of questions about how the early-learning initiative would work.

Delisle covered numerous other topics squarely on the minds of urban school leaders, including how the across-the-board federal budget cuts known as sequestration will continue to affect their funding in the coming weeks and months. Some urban leaders raised concerns about how sequestration might impact their ability to "carry over" Title I and other federal funds from the current fiscal year to the next fiscal year, and if the Education Department would be able to loosen its rules on that issue as long as sequestration is in effect. Delisle said that department officials are discussing how they might handle requests for such carry-overs.

She warned also of furloughs for Education Department employees that could range from five days to 14 days, but said planning was under way to stagger those, so that gaps in service and technical assistance to districts would not be severe.

Delisle also said the Education Department is in the early stages of thinking about how it might alter the rules for its $4 billion School Improvement Grant program, and told the urban school officials that their input would be very important. (This seems to signal a departure from earlier pronouncements from department officials that any alternative to the four turnaround models required under SIG would be unlikely for approval.) She offered no assessment of how well she thinks the school turnaround programs are working, but shared an anecdote from a recent district visit that underscored the uneven nature of the efforts. She did not name the district, nor the state in which it was located.

Delisle said that during her stop at a middle school midway through its second year of the SIG program, she observed a "keyboarding" or typing class, which she was surprised was still a course offering. The teacher, she said, wanted to show off projects that students had recently completed. Students had cut out pictures of computer screens and keyboards and pasted them on large sheets of construction paper. This school, she said, had already spent about $2.5 million of its federal turnaround money, a good chunk of it on an external provider hired to steer the improvement effort.

"I looked at the principal and the external provider and said, 'Working on a lot of rigor, eh?'" she said.

But just a few miles away in the same district at an elementary school undergoing turnaround, she saw an entirely different scene. Third graders, she said, were in a classroom with two teachers (one of them a special education specialist) and using iPads and QR codes, (a symbol used by smartphones and other devices to link to online content) to research possible answers to the question: "How can mankind change the course of history?"

"Every kid in America should have the QR code and not the cut-outs," she said.

Questions about states' flexibility waivers from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act also surfaced, including one from Michael Casserly, the executive director of the council. He asked if the Education Department could rewrite the regulation within the NCLB law that requires school districts to set aside 20 percent of their Title I funds to pay for tutoring services and choice for students attending low-performing schools. States that have been granted waivers are able to grant freedom to districts to avoid the set-aside of funds. Casserly wanted to know if the department could do the same for all districts, outside of the state waiver plans.

"We're in conversation about it," she said. "I can't say more."

School safety and guns were also a major discussion point at today's gathering, which my colleague Nirvi Shah describes over at Rules for Engagement.

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