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Final Rules Set for School Turnaround Grants

States, Districts Must Pick From Four Models for Grants to Fix Lowest-Performing Schools

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The U.S. Department of Education has finalized its rules governing $3.5 billion in school improvement grants for states and districts, making only small changes despite criticism that its four models for turning around the nation’s worst schools are too prescriptive.

States have until Feb. 8 to submit applications for their share of the money, which comes from $3 billion of the federal economic-stimulus package and $546 million of the Education Department’s fiscal 2009 appropriation. The money will be spent over the next three years, although states can ask for a waiver to use it through 2013.

To get their money, states must target schools that rank in the bottom 5 percent in student achievement. In one change from the proposed regulations, the definition of lowest-achieving schools has been expanded to include high schools with graduation rates below 60 percent for a “number of years.”

The money will flow to states based on the Title I formula for aid to disadvantaged students, but states will award the money competitively to districts.

School districts must agree to one of four turnaround models: closing the school and sending students to higher-achieving ones; turning it around by replacing the principal and most of the staff; “restarting” the school by turning it over to a charter- or education-management organization; or implementing a mandatory basket of strategies labeled “transformation.”

During a 30-day public-review period for the proposed regulations, 180 comments were submitted, many of them critical of what was described as highly prescriptive reforms from the federal government. Critics said the models might not work in communities where teacher and principal shortages exist, where teachers’ union contracts pose barriers, or where closing an entire school isn’t feasible.

But, for the most part, the department refused to budge.

The department wrote in its final notice, released Dec. 3: “Over the course of the past eight years, states and [districts] have had considerable time, and have been able to tap new resources, to identify and implement effective school turnaround strategies. Yet they have demonstrated little success in doing so.”

Vol. 29, Issue 14, Page 4

Published in Print: December 9, 2009, as New Rules Set for $3.5 Billion in Turnaround Aid
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