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Examining Federal School Improvement Funding Policy (6/28/14)

Funding for school improvement is one of the most important education policy issues of our time. As property values have plummeted, and sales tax revenues have floundered, federal and state education budgets have experienced unprecedented cuts during the past 7 – 9 years. In this environment, local boards of education have struggled to make ends meet while seeking to continue to provide a quality education for students.

The goal of providing a quality education for students has been especially difficult, during the described economic downturn, in our nation’s lowest performing schools, which are also many of its financially neediest. Because of the student populations served in these schools and the challenges they face with staffing and instructional supports, low performing schools simply require more resources than their more advantaged peers to produce improved results. The practicality and effectiveness of this practice, of course, has been the subject of much national debate.

A 6/16/14 Education Week article titled In Federal-State Relations on Education Policy, Should Locals Get Priority? Andrew Ujifusa recounted the debate during a recent policy summit hosted by the Center for American Progress. During the panel discussion, top officials from the US Department of Education (USDOE) along with national thought leaders assessed the effectiveness of current USDOE funding policy for school improvement. The overarching theme was that a lack of flexibility in policy on how money was being spent for school improvement was stifling the overall effectiveness of USDOE efforts. The example that was used was the success of the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. Ujifusa reported a mixed response to SIG’s demonstrated effectiveness in the field. This is where a lens from practice is useful to provide perspective on SIG’s impact in the field.

As a former school district superintendent, I have worked in and with struggling schools. Further, because of my PK -12 roots, I still know practitioners in the field. In fact, I know lots of them and some of them are principals in SIG schools. From this experience, I can tell you that the biggest factor in turning around a failing school is to change its culture/the way it does business. Culture has overarching relevance in four key areas: student discipline, academics, staffing, and community support. Now, culture does not address additional resources, which are also needed but in SIG schools this is not a factor, the resources are there, because of the grant.

The strategy that I outlined for you is simple, but effective. Also, it is needs to be noted that SIG schools do not turn around without great leadership. You have to have principals in place with vision and the flexibility and support to make decisions that they see fit to move the school forward. This includes much of what was talked about in Ujifusa’s article regarding how the SIG funds are used. The accountability for principals of SIG schools should then be based on results.

Finally, I offer some pointers from practice for overall improvement of SIG implementation in our nation’s public schools:

• Restructure SIG on the front end; provide the same total level of funding, for the life of the grant, with less money to start in year one along with more autonomy on how the money is used to support school improvement.

• At the end of year one, assess progress based on predetermined, achievable, indicators that were given at the start of the grant. If sufficient progress is evident, increase funding and autonomy. If sufficient progress is not achieved increase district and state level support and maintain funding at its current level. Also, provide the opportunity for the increased level of funding to be recovered in tiers if successive established targets are met through short term action plans.

• Continue the same tiered evidence based funding through the life of the grant.

• Increase the total time of the grant. For example, instead of 8 million dollars over three years for a school, stretch the 8 million over five or six years. This provides more time for schools to achieve results with the grant. It also provides the opportunity for sustained success after the grant ends because enough time has passed for new practices to be established within the school’s operating procedures.

With the right people and practices in place, SIG and other federal school improvement funding initiatives can be and are effective. The key in making these programs successful on a large scale is replication of successful school based practices and a true commitment by policy makers, at all levels, to listen to practitioners in the field, specifically those who work at the level of implementation, and adopt what they know to be effective.

Shawn McCollough
President & CEO