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Congress Tweaks School Improvement Grants, i3 in Spending Bill

Congress may have gotten rid of the Obama administration's signature Race to the Top competitive-grant program in the "cromnibus" spending measure, which has been approved by both houses of Congress. But lawmakers kept two other stimulus-era Obama administration education-redesign programs: the School Improvement Grant program, which is aimed at turning around low-performing schools, and the Investing in Innovation grant program, which is meant to scale up promising practices at the district level.

But just because SIG and i3 are still around doesn't mean there won't be some changes to them.

For instance, the next round of projects funded under Investing in Innovation, which got cut from $141 million in fiscal year 2014 to $120 million in fiscal year 2015, are supposed to be focused entirely on high school redesign. Prospective grantees must have plans for improving graduation rates and ensuring that students graduate ready for college-level work. It's worth noting that the bill also zeroed out the $46 million "High School Graduation" initiative, which had somewhat similar goals.

And, even though Congress didn't reduce the $505 million SIG program in its latest budget bill, it's clear that lawmakers are still really unhappy with the Obama administration's implementation  program, which has posted mixed results when it comes to student outcomes.

The Obama administration didn't actually invent SIG, but it sought—and got—$3 billion for the program in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, aka the economic stimulus. With the new money came new strings for grant recipients: the Obama administration required schools that wanted the grants to use one of four prescriptive turnaround models. The administration's strategies called for big, tricky steps like closing a school, turning it a charter, and/or extending the school day and using student data to inform instruction. States and educators liked the extra money for turnarounds, but said they felt constrained.

Earlier this year, also in a spending bill, Congress said states should be allowed to come up with their own school improvement strategies and submit them to the U.S. Secretary of Education for approval. Lawmakers left it up to the U.S. Department of Education to fill in the blanks on how to make this work.

This fall, when the department came out with draft regulations, it turned out the new flexibility wasn't really so flexible. Any new ideas turnaround states proposed had to conform to the department's "turnaround principles" for states that have received waivers from provision of the No Child Left Behind Act. (That's most states—42 plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.) Those turnaround principles don't really look much different from the most popular SIG model ("transformation"). ¬†A number of education groups, including the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of the Great City Schools, made it clear that the department was still being way too rigid in its approach.

And it sounds like lawmakers agree. Members of Congress essentially laid a smackdown on the department in a report accompanying the bill. They told the department the draft regs "fall short of congressional intent" because states have to stick to the waivers' turnaround principles and are subject to new requirements. The final regs, which are due out next year, must "strictly adhere" to legislative language which "stipulates that LEAs may implement an alternative State-determined school improvement strategy that has been established by a State educational agency."

Translation: Hey, Mr. Secretary, flexibility means flexibility. Your draft regulations don't cut it. You're clearly not listening to us. (Not exactly Joan-Rivers-on-the-red-carpet-snarky, but it's pretty pointed as far as congressional report language on draft regulations goes.)

Another change in the bill is even more likely to lead to tweaks in the regs (and could even delay them, advocates speculate). In last year's giant spending bill, Congress added a new SIG model of its own, the "whole school reform model" which allows states to partner with outside organizations with a strong track record of success. Originally, programs partnering with SIG schools had to have at least two high-quality studies to back up their approach. That didn't leave very many options, so now states and schools can pick a partner with at least one high-quality study behind them.

That's a helpful change, said Michele McLaughlin, the president of the Knowledge Alliance, which advocates for education researchers.

"I think it makes sense. It will allow more evidence-based approaches to be used in low performing schools," she said in an email. She noted that the revision is something a lot of groups asked for in commenting on the department's proposed changes for SIG. 

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