States Unable to Help All Struggling Schools

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Budget limitations are hindering the ways states can help their most struggling public schools, even as the federal No Child Left Behind Act is set to demand more interventions in schools that fail to make progress on test scores.

The federal law requires states to determine which schools aren't meeting annual test-score goals. If schools haven't met goals two years in a row, they must offer transfers or extra help for students. If schools don't meet goals five years in a row, states are required to intervene.

But many states remain in awful financial shape, and few programs to help low-performing schools are being expanded. Some states are even cutting them, while state policymakers are trying to craft better assistance programs that may rescue some schools caught failing to meet No Child Left Behind test-score goals over time.

"What's changed is, the consequences have been ratcheted up significantly, and that makes everybody a little more sensitive to try to find ways to ensure success," said Henry L. Johnson, Mississippi's state education superintendent and a former North Carolina deputy state superintendent.

In many states, leaders want to do much more for struggling schools than they're able to do. Mr. Johnson prefers the North Carolina model he helped create, but contends Mississippi can afford only a scaled-down version that delivers part- time help for the state's lowest-rated schools.

Virginia backed away from full-time help this year after concerns about the costs and effectiveness of some intervention strategies. ("Va. Hones School Assistance Model," this issue.)

Kentucky and Alabama have seen recent cuts to their programs, while California and other states may be next.

"You've got states caught on the horns of this dilemma," said Mark Musick, the president of the Southern Regional Education Board, an Atlanta-based group that advises 16 member states on education policy.

"Years ago, they were not identifying nearly enough low- performing schools," he explained. "Now, they've got such a large number of low-performing schools ... [that] most of them are trying to come up with some sort of triage."

Bluegrass State Blues

Kentucky's school intervention workers, now called "highly skilled educators," survived last year's legislative budget debate, though there are not enough of them to go around.

Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education, said the program, which sends top educators to work in troubled schools, has faced challenges since it began in the 1980s. She said caps were placed on the educators' salaries some years ago after criticism that some were making too much money. Some schools lamented the loss of their leading teachers or administrators to the program, she added.

But consultants who coach struggling schools through problems have proved valuable in many schools, which may be why lawmakers left the $6.4 million program in place, according to Ms. Gross.

Kentucky's program is limited by its budget, though. "We've only got about 50 highly skilled educators assigned and about 90 schools that need them," Ms. Gross said.

Kentucky, however, did lose a school improvement program last year. Lawmakers cut about $4 million from eight regional service centers that provided training and instructional guidance for schools and districts. Each center had at least a dozen employees. Many of the employees returned to school districts after the cut, she said, and some support workers were laid off.

The Bluegrass State also operates a school audit process in which community members receive intensive training and draft detailed improvement plans for struggling schools. More than 140 schools completed such audits last year, Ms. Gross said.

Tight Times

In the West, California's pressing budget situation has prevented the state from expanding help to low-performing schools. The state has sent external intervention teams into about 55 schools in the past three years.

Teams of up to 12 people are trained to look for weaknesses in how the schools are run, and then help make recommendations and changes in those schools and districts scoring the lowest on state tests, said Wendy Harris, the assistant state superintendent for school improvement.

California pays up to $100,000 for at least one year of work by each team, plus $150 per student for training and other needs at each school. But the state has been unable to expand that work since it began three years ago, even though hundreds more schools could use assistance, she said.

The program survived when then-Gov. Gray Davis announced budget reductions in January of last year. So far, the legislature has not ordered current cuts, and new Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has promised not to cut K-12 education funding. But a projected $10 billion dollar budget deficit in the state's roughly $99 billion budget for fiscal 2004, Ms. Harris said, may force the state to look at such programs in the future.

In Alabama, 46 schools are listed as in the greatest need of technical help from the state. Another 233 are on a watch list. But budget troubles are limiting what assistance the state can provide.

"We should be working with the 46 and the 233," said Joe Morton, the deputy state schools superintendent in Alabama. "And we can't even serve all of the 46."

Alabama lawmakers this past fall cut more than $250,000 from the program—at least 10 percent of its budget—after voters rejected a tax increase that would mainly have benefited public schools, Mr. Morton said. ("Alabama Voters Reject Gov. Riley's Tax Plan," Sept. 17, 2003.)

It's a good sign that leaders are focusing on public schools and districts that have been neglected for so long, said Susan Taylor, who directs a project on state-level assistance for the Council of Chief State Schools Officers, based in Washington. State leaders involved in the project met in November to discuss state strategies.

"There was a feeling that this is an opportunity to make a difference," she said. "They're all trying to grow this [kind of work] together."

Vol. 23, Issue 16, Pages 19, 23

Published in Print: January 7, 2004, as States Unable to Help All Struggling Schools
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