Poor schools didn’t have enough time to plan spending of $3 billion stimulus windfall

Most used extra School Improvement Grant money to replace principal, lengthen school day

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 John Raoux/The Associated Press

Tight timelines set by the U.S. stimulus spending law may have muted the impact of a $3 billion  windfall for some of the nation’s poorest performing schools.

The stimulus money was poured into the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, which had a congressional appropriation of $546 million for the 2010-11 school year. The total $3.5 billion in spending for the year represented at 30-fold increase from SIG’s first year of operations in fiscal 2007.

A broad review of SIG by the Government Accountability Office suggests that the amount of reform made possible by the unprecedented funding boost was hampered by rushed execution. “Short time frames affected schools’ ability to implement SIG interventions in many of the states we visited,” said the GAO’s first broad annual review of SIG.

Although the Education Department moved back the application deadline for the program to give states and school districts more time to plan how to use the funds, “as of June 24, 2011, six states, including the District of Columbia, were still awaiting approval of their SIG applications,” the GAO said.

As iWatch News reported in May, similar difficulties have occurred with more than $4 billion spent on education reform by Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, computer magnate Michael Dell, investor Eli Broad, and the Walton family of Wal-Mart fame.  A computer analysis of graduation rates and test scores in 10 city school districts by iWatch News found most still substantially trailed their state’s overall rates.

The GAO report examined six states to assess the SIG program. Although the GAO stressed that its findings “are not generalizable to all states,” the ones it chose –– Delaware, Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Virginia – vary in population and density as well as the number of districts in the states that received SIG grants.

Districts receiving SIG dollars were required to employ one of four “intervention models” to reform their failing schools:  Transformation, turnaround, restart, or closure.

Transformation, where the principal is replaced and the school day extended, was used in 74 percent of SIG schools studied in the report. The other three approaches are typically more difficult to carry out, the GAO said. Turnaround requires administrators to replace at least 51 percent of the staff with new teachers, while restart means the school is restarted as a charter school. The closure approach means the school is closed and students sent to nearby schools.

These challenges are especially tough in rural states like Nebraska, the GAO said.  Closing a school can be difficult due to the distances separating schools from one another. It is also hard to recruit enough new staff to rural locations to make the turnaround model viable And in Nebraska, charter schools are currently not permitted by law, leaving only one option – transformation.

Regardless of the state, officials told the GAO that the SIG program was most successful when it had “teacher and union buy-in.” For example, in Columbus, Ohio, “district and union officials worked together to give SIG schools priority in staffing by allowing them to hire staff before other schools.”

In coming years, the SIG program will have much less money to work with. It received the same congressional funding in FY2010, $546 million, as it got in 2009. The following year, the Education Department plans to slightly reduce that amount to $535 million.

FAST FACT: Virginia was the only state in the GAO’s sample that used its SIG money to restart or close schools. Out of 18 schools it targeted for improvement, five were restarted as charters and two were closed.