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Clock Ticking, States Wait for School Turnaround Money

Nineteen states—including Race to the Top Round One winners Delaware and Tennessee—are still waiting for the Education Department to green light their plans for turning around chronically underperforming schools.

Remember that this is the $3.5 billion Title I School Improvement Grants I'm talking about, a huge infusion of federal money (most of it from the economic stimulus law) into states to be directed at turning around the worst schools.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has made the school turnaround push a centerpiece of his agenda and has called repeatedly for drastic interventions that will produce "breakthrough change" over the next three years. For many schools, those interventions—in the form of the four prescribed models of turnaround required by the Education Department—are supposed to start in August. And really, the changes for many schools need to have started already, especially in cases where principals and teachers must be replaced.

Curiously, the states still waiting for approval not only include Delaware and Tennessee, but several other strong finishers in the first round of Race to the Top. Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, and Rhode Island are among those. California is also in limbo.

It's not entirely clear how the holdup may be impacting folks on the ground in states and districts that need to have their turnaround plans well underway if they are going to produce the changes called for by Secretary Duncan on a three-year time line. In Delaware, at least, state officials are saying they can't even name which schools they will target for turnaround until they know the status of their application. From an article in The News Journal in Wilmington:

The state can't release some other information—including which schools will be part of the state's effort to turn around schools with failing test scores—because the state is awaiting a decision from U.S. Department of Education about another grant that ties into the plan, [an official] said.

Here is the language from a FAQ document on the department's web site explaining the time line and urgency of disbursing and using the school improvement grants:

Consistent with the intent of the ARRA both to infuse funds into the economy and to support significant improvement in our Nation's persistently lowest-achieving schools, the Department expects that the majority of the FY 2009 SIG funds will be used to fully implement intervention models in Tier I and Tier II schools in the 2010-2011 school year.
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