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Senate Appropriations Committee Adds School Improvement Option

The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee approved a spending bill June 14 that would make some big changes to the $533 School Improvement Grant program.

The measure, which would provide about $68.5 billion for the U.S. Department of Education, would allow add a fifth option to the four highly-controversial choices spelled out in the original regulations for the SIG program. The bill would permit schools to use a "whole school reform model" that has at least as much research to back it up as programs that won a "validation" grant (the middle level) under the federal Investing in Innovation grant competition.

That's good news for schools that want to partner with programs like Success for All, which works on turnarounds and has won multiple i3 grants. Success for All got a "Scale Up grant" in the first round of i3 and would meet the benchmark laid out by the panel.

So what's the justification for this? The committee noted that some "low-capacity" districts have had a tough time implementing the SIG program as it's currently operating. The lawmakers point to a report that came out earlier this year from the Government Accountability Office to back up their claims. The GAO report found that the department wasn't doing a great job of monitoring how states are using contractors to implement the program.

"The Committee believes the Department should implement effective strategies that address the GAO's findings as soon as possible," the bill report said.

The "whole-school reform" model isn't brand new. It was part of a broader bill aimed at reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act approved the Senate education committee last fall, but stalled since.

Lawmakers also approved an important change from the original version of the spending bill, which was approved by the Senate subcommittee that oversees education spending on June 12. That bill would have included $600 million for the administration's top priority, the Race to the Top program.

But, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the top Republican on the committee, introduced language that moved $50.7 million out of the Race to the Top competitive grant program, and into the Math Science Partnerships program, bringing the math program it to nearly $150 million, the same level as this year. He also made the funding in the Math Science Partnerships program formula based, instead of competitive. That's yet another sign that many in Congress are not so enamored of Race to the Top and would rather see the money put into formula grants.

"The restoration of funding would continue to ensure that all states receive federal resources for improving math and science instruction," said Shelby in a statement.

But another amendment didn't get support. Sen. Mary Landreiu, D-La., and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., wanted to shift money from the SIG program into charter school expansion. But the amendment failed, on a vote of 13 to 17.

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