California Schools to Vie for Grant Funding

$3 billion pot available from legal settlement to boost performance.

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Low-performing schools in California have until the end of March to apply for almost $3 billion in grant money to be used for lowering class sizes, providing professional development, and adding more high school counselors.

But of the 1,455 schools that are eligible for the aid available because of a legal settlement, only 500 are expected to receive any money. The grants are available to schools scoring at the lowest levels on the state’s Academic Performance Index, or API, and the schools still will have to apply for the money and make a case for how it would be used.

Despite the hurdles, state education officials are encouraging schools to apply for the grants.

“Some of our lowest-performing schools need to make dramatic changes in order to change the culture that is holding them back,” state schools Superintendent Jack O’Connell said during a Feb. 12 telephone press conference held to urge schools to apply. Joining him on the call was Barbara Kerr, the president of the California Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. She called the strategies prescribed by the new grant program “proven reforms.”

The program, called the Quality Education Investment Act, results from the settlement of a lawsuit that the CTA and Mr. O’Connell filed against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005 to force the repayment of education funds that were used to help balance the state budget in 2004.

Last fall, when the proposed settlement legislation was announced, the state estimated that 600 schools would benefit.

But Hilary McLean, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Education, said that calculations later determined that the amount of money available wouldn’t go as far.

Ms. McLean added that she was unaware of whether any applications have been received by the department, but that Mr. O’Connell is talking up the program whenever he visits schools or community groups.

“We believe that schools are very busy going through the application process,” she said.

The new grant program will be spread over seven years and, when fully implemented, will amount to $500 per student in kindergarten through 3rd grade, $900 each in 4th through 8th grades, and $1,000 in high school. During fiscal 2007, the current budget year and the first in which the money will be available, the amounts will be slightly less, officials say.

Welcoming the Support

In addition to using the aid for specific purposes—such as capping class sizes at 20 in K-3 and 25 in grades 4-12—schools that receive grants will be expected to exceed their student-achievement targets under the API, which is a scale ranging from 200 to 1,000.

Schools that fail to exceed their targets will be allowed to remain in the program, however.

Grants to Help Low-Performing Schools

California’s Quality Education Investment Act will provide a total of $2.9 billion to roughly 500 schools over seven years. The money will be used for:

• Limiting class sizes to 20 students in K-3.
• Reducing class sizes to an average of 25 in grades 4-12.
• Providing a counselor for every 300 students in high school.
• Having “highly qualified” teachers in all core subject areas by the end of the third year of the program.
• Establishing the state’s first “teacher-quality index,” intended to ensure that the average teaching experience at the schools receiving the money is equal to or better than the district average.
• Providing instructional staff and administrators with professional development tied to state standards.
• Allowing schools to have flexibility in order to try innovative strategies.
• Expanding a career education program that integrates the curriculum of high schools and community colleges to provide four years of vocational training.

“We’re not going to penalize you for trying,” Ms. McLean said, adding that those schools would have access to “intervention teams” that would help identify ways the schools could improve.

If schools failed to carry out the required reforms, however, they would have to leave the program.

The 35,000-student Mount Diablo Unified School District, east of San Francisco, has 10 schools out of 48 that are eligible for the funds.

“We are definitely planning to apply,” said Sue Berg, a spokeswoman for the school district. She added that the district is interested in doing more to focus on the needs of English-language learners and students with special needs. “We welcome any support that we can get.”

But she said officials in her district needed to further examine the requirements associated with the grants.

In addition to the class-size restrictions, teachers in a school that receives the money also must have an average level of experience that is at least equal to the average for teachers in the district. And professional-development programs must be provided to not less than a third of the teachers and paraprofessionals at the school each year.

Some observers have suggested that California already has too many programs targeting schools that serve students with various challenges. In many cases, for example, the new grants are expected to go to low-performing schools with high percentages of English-language learners and students from low-income families.

A study released last fall by the think tank Policy Analysis for California Education, based jointly at Stanford University and the University of California’s campuses at Berkeley and Davis, recommended that state officials “pursue a coherent strategy for boosting the performance of English-learners.”

Ms. McLean said she didn’t think that the new program would further confuse schools. If schools meet the requirements, she added, they’ll stay in the program for seven years, not move in and out based on their API rankings.

“We’ve already done some work to try to streamline our intervention system,” she said.

Vol. 26, Issue 25, Pages 18, 22

Published in Print: February 28, 2007, as California Schools to Vie for Grant Funding
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