Thursday, March 11, 2010


Corey G. Johnson | California Watch Blog

March 9, 2010 | The public outing of 188 under-performing schools on Monday was more than an exposé of weak educators: It is part of a frantic state push to qualify this week for close to $400 million from a federal alternative to Race to the Top.

The much-sought-after funds are called School Improvement Grants. They have been around since the 1960's but have been revamped under the Obama administration. Backed by federal stimulus dollars, the Department of Education is offering up to $4 billion in SIG funding to turnaround schools that are deemed consistently low performers.

The state Department of Education missed the original Feb. 8 deadline to compete for the grants but was given an extension to reapply. The extension's deadline is March 15.

The state released the names of the schools on Monday, in part, to fulfill the transparency requirements for the grant. Some have questioned whether the state's methods for creating the lists truly represent all the failing schools. You can see the lists for yourself here and here.

On Thursday, the State Board of Education will decide whether the lists are adequate or in need of adjustment. The board is also expected to vote on whether the application is ready to be sent to federal authorities.

Fresh off of learning that its Race to the Top application was rejected last week, the SIG funds could represent a decent consolation prize. If the funding push is successful, California could get up to $400 million.

School districts would then have until June 1 to apply to the state for funding, which ranges between $50,000 and $2 million in federal money each year for three years. Once approved, the districts must begin implementing reform plans by September, said Liz Guillen of Public Advocates, a nonprofit group that advocates for fairness and equality in education.

The community group PICO California, Guillen's group, and the California State PTA, said on Monday that they worried about such a quick pace surrounding the state's effort. They fear that the June deadline for districts is a time crunch that will shortchange parents and children by preventing the thorough involvement and input needed to decide on the best reform strategy at the schools.

Under the state's new reform laws passed this year, each one of these 188 schools could be forced to close, fire all its teachers or start over as a charter school, as a precondition to receiving the grant.

Although the state's application requires each district to have two public meetings before deciding which strategy to undertake, Guillen said much more is needed to help families truly be informed and to act as partners in these changes. She said she hopes districts would seek an extension from the September deadline, so that community members could have greater input in the final decisions.

"It's going to take more than two public meetings. There needs to be training and workshops to help parents, principals and teachers to come together to understand which one of these models they should best adopt," Guillen said. "Without that, it will be the same old business, districts and the state deciding what they think is best. And we know that doesn't work or else we wouldn't be in this fix in the first place."

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