One of the first examinations of state practices in carrying out the federal No Child Left Behind Act’s school improvement requirements suggests that states are implementing an assortment of approaches to help schools. But the amount of money available for such activities varies widely by state and may bear little relation to the number of schools identified for improvement.
Such schools are supposed to receive help from their states—to the tune of $493 million this school year and an estimated $514 million in 2005-06.
“Some states are really stretched, and some states are rolling in money,” said Phyllis McClure, an independent education consultant who conducted the study on behalf of the Washington-based Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan research and education group. “It is not true that all states are hurting for resources.”
The 3-year-old law directed states to set aside 2 percent of their federal Title I Part A money for school improvement in fiscal years 2002 and 2003, and 4 percent in fiscal years 2004 to 2007.
They are expected to allocate 95 percent of those funds directly to districts for schools identified as needing improvement, and retain 5 percent to finance a “statewide system of intensive and sustained support” to help those schools get better.
Drawing on information from 19 states, Ms. McClure found that states supported schools in a variety of ways. Arizona required districts to contract with a range of external facilitators from a state-approved list. Virginia assigned high-performing principals, known as “turnaround specialists,” to its most consistently low-performing schools.
Several states targeted their aid to districts, to help them build the capacity to assist low-performing schools. Ohio, for instance, has district coaches who help design specific services for school systems, such as data analysis and standards-based instructional practices. New York state’s 5 percent goes in part to 10 regional school support centers that work with the lowest-performing schools in their respective locales. In many places, Ms. McClure discovered, both human and fiscal constraints have meant that states are relying largely on regional service centers to provide support.
Rather than require states to provide “school support teams,” as originally envisioned by the law, the federal government should encourage such flexibility, she said. But she also cautioned that state departments of education need to be more strategic in how they help schools, in part by cultivating outside sources of assistance rather than trying to do all the work themselves.
States also have adopted a number of approaches to distributing the improvement funds. Some have chosen to provide a flat per-school allotment, while others give schools different amounts based on how long they have been identified for improvement or what percentage of a school’s students are from low-income families.
The study also indicates that the amount of school improvement money varies widely by state from year to year, and may have little relationship to the number of schools each state has identified. For 2004-05, for example, Texas identified 197 schools for improvement and should have had $44.4 million to spend on them, based on setting aside 4 percent of its Title I Part A allocation. In contrast, Virginia identified 460 schools, but had only $7.8 million to spend.
Meanwhile, the number of identified schools increased by 10 in Minnesota from the 2003-04 school year to 2004-05, yet the state’s school improvement fund declined. In contrast, Georgia’s fund doubled from 2003-04 to 2004-05, yet 90 fewer schools were designated as needing improvement.
At least some of those disparities are related to how the size of the school improvement fund is set, Ms. McClure found. The federal government allocates Title I Part A funds to states based on estimates of the number of poor children ages 5 to 17 in a school district. Title I funding for each state may increase or decrease annually, based on the overall level of federal funding for the program and on the number of poor children in a state. Under the law, states must guarantee each district a base-line sum before financing the school improvement fund. As a result, states may end up with less money allocated for school improvement than theoretically provided.
Ms. McClure suggests that Congress appropriate money each year for a separate school improvement authorization and direct the U.S. secretary of education to allocate that money proportionally to states whose school improvement funds have dipped below the 4 percent set-aside.
She also suggests that the federal government help states build capacity to carry out a broader range of improvement activities, and permit them to set aside more than 5 percent of their funds for state-level support. And Ms. McClure recommends that district-level initiatives, such as the leadership development of principals, should be considered legitimate school improvement expenses.
But she warned that states must provide some of their money to help low-performing schools, noting that the federal aid was never intended to cover the entire costs of school improvement.