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A Peek Inside Calif.'s Pursuit of School Improvement Grants

Despite my repeated badgering last month, officials at the U.S. Department of Education wouldn't discuss anything about why it seems to be taking so long for some states to receive final approval on their applications for the $3.5 billion in Title I School Improvement Grants. (As of today, 14 states are still waiting for the green light from ED.)

This timing issue is crucial because states and districts were already going to be under tremendous pressure to plan and execute aggressive interventions in low-performing schools under the new rules for using the school improvement money. Many components of those interventions, such as replacing a principal or, in some cases, replacing half the teaching staff, must be done by the first day of school later this summer.

All ED officials would say about the applications is that they are getting very careful review.

But now I've got a little more insight into why this process might be dragging on for certain states, thanks to a 34-page document prepared for the next meeting of the California State Board of Education (scroll down the main agenda to Item #26) published online over the holiday weekend. (Big thanks to Doug McRae, a retired test publisher in Monterey who follows all of this stuff closely, for directing me here!) Indeed, judging from California's experience, ED officials are scrutinizing these applications very closely.

I knew California had to revise its application, but, as this agenda item makes clear, state education officials had to submit revisions, not once, not twice, not three times, but four times. California first filed its application on March 26. It made its last revision on June 16, eight days before ED gave the state final approval. The nature of the requested changes range from what circumstances would prompt the state to withdraw grant funding from a school to exactly how the state would score and rank the applications it receives from local districts.

Much of the revising that ED asked California to do was on the application state officials had drafted for school districts to use when they apply for grants on behalf of eligible schools. ED officials wanted more budget details from the targeted schools, as well as more specific information on how districts would use their small share of the grants to help schools execute their improvement plans.

One of the more eye-catching clarifications that ED asked California to address was language in its original application that seemed to indicate that low-performing charter schools would be expected to opt for the school closure model. (Remember that ED is requiring that schools targeted for turnaround select one of four methods of improvement, including shutting down the school and moving kids to a nearby, higher-performing one.)

In their response, California officials wrote that they had "modified" the wording to "reflect that persistently lowest-achieving charter schools that do not select the School Closure intervention model must clarify how the intervention selected will create a significantly different instructional model and school culture."

So does this mean that the nine charter schools in California that were identified as grant-eligible are considered to be un-fixable? Or is the theory that charters, by their very nature, are supposed to already be innovative and free of the bureaucratic and contractual constraints that hamper regular public schools, so if they aren't working in that context, they ought to just go away?


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