Published Online: May 11, 2009

Obama Wants to Turn Around 5,000 Failing Schools

President Barack Obama intends to use $5 billion to prod local officials to close failing schools and reopen them with new teachers and principals.

The goal is to turn around 5,000 failing schools in the next five years, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Monday.

The plan is to beef up funding for the federal school turnaround program, created by the No Child Left Behind law, which gets about $500 million a year. The stimulus legislation boosted funding to $3.5 billion. Obama's budget would add another $1.5 billion by shifting dollars away from traditional formula programs.

Obama doesn't have authority to close and reopen schools himself. That power rests with local school districts and states. But he has an incentive in the economic stimulus law, which requires states to help failing schools improve.

Duncan said that might mean firing an entire staff and bringing in a new one, replacing a principal or turning a school over to a charter school operator. The point, he said, is to take bold action in persistently low-achieving schools.

"Our students have one chance — one chance — to get a quality education," Duncan said in a speech Monday to the Brookings Institution think tank.

"If we turn around just the bottom 1 percent, the bottom thousand schools per year for the next five years, we could really move the needle, lift the bottom and change the lives of tens of millions of underserved children," Duncan said.

In particular, the administration wants to fix middle schools and high schools, focusing on "dropout factories" where two in five kids don't make it to graduation.

Duncan, a former Chicago schools chief, has plenty of experience with school turnarounds. Chicago targeted several public schools for turnaround, eight of them last year, while Duncan was still in charge. It's too soon to know how the eight fared.

The plan to focus on failing schools is part of an effort by Obama to fundamentally change the perception of what works in education. It comes as the administration prepares to rewrite President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind education law.

The president already has channeled an unprecedented amount of money into the traditional federal funding for elementary, middle and high schools in his economic stimulus law.

But Obama also plans big boosts for newer and, some argue, untested ideas, plowing more dollars into school turnarounds as well as merit pay for teachers.

"Here's a chance to do something dramatically different," Duncan told The Associated Press after his speech. "I don't want to lose that opportunity."

Combined with the budget plan released last week, Obama may have as much as $5 billion to facilitate school turnarounds, which could translate to $1 million for every school targeted for turnaround.

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