Federal

Waiver Promises May Put Cash Squeeze on States

By Alyson Klein — April 24, 2012 6 min read
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States receiving waivers of strict mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act must now face the cost of winning that flexibility: a renewed focus on some of their lowest-performing schools and, in some cases, changes to the structure of the school day. They will do so with no assurance that a particular school will get extra financial help from the federal government to deliver.

So far, 11 states have received waivers of key provisions of the NCLB law, and another 26 applied for the flexibility at the end of February. More waivers are expected to be announced later this spring.

Some states’ foundering schools will continue to get federal School Improvement Grants, which come with big money attached—up to $2 million per school annually. But there’s no specific pot of federal funding for fixing other low-performing schools that states have promised to concentrate on as a condition for getting waivers.

That could create a kind of two-tiered system among low-performing schools, said Robert Balfanz, the director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore. He helped review the first round of waiver applications, approved in February.

“The waivers say, ‘Your whole bottom 5 percent have got to be fixed,’ and states have got to do it on their bottom line,” Mr. Balfanz said.

That means, he added, that “we’re going to have a natural experiment,” in which some low-performing schools will get a piece of the $533 million SIG fund, which requires schools to put in place one of four turnaround plans outlined by the U.S. Department of Education, while others will be subject to a somewhat more flexible list of interventions, without an extra dose of federal funding.

For now, it’s too early to say whether the difference will lead to more-anemic turnaround efforts in schools that are identified as being among the bottom 5 percent in the state but aren’t given SIG funding and aren’t bound to the requirements of the SIG program, Mr. Balfanz said.

Already, researchers are sounding alarm bells about the quality of states’ waiver plans when it comes to a particular policy many see as pivotal to raising sluggish student achievement: expanded learning time.

Nearly all the state waiver applications approved by the Education Department were light on details when it comes to that piece of the turnaround puzzle, according to a report released last week by the Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington.

Priority and Focus

Under the waiver initiative, which was unveiled last September, states are required to identify their lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, called “priority” schools. That category can include schools receiving funds under the SIG program, which requires schools to put in place one of the four turnaround models.

Priority schools will also include others that are perennially struggling but don’t receive SIG funding; there won’t be enough SIG money available to cover all priority schools.

The waiver program also asked states to identify another batch of schools—called “focus” schools—that are contributing to the statewide achievement gap among various groups of students, as well as high schools with a graduation rate of less than 60 percent that aren’t in the priority schools category.

States weren’t required to explicitly outline their plans for funding priority schools in their waiver applications. But the Education Department is urging states and districts to use money freed up under another change offered under the waivers for school improvement activities.

Under the waiver plans, states no longer have to set aside a big chunk of their federal Title I funding for disadvantaged students for choice and tutoring.

That means that money—20 percent of a district’s Title I funds—can be directed to school improvement, said Daren Briscoe, a spokesman for the Education Department. But the department can’t require schools to take that step, he said.

“We have suggested that school improvement would be an appropriate use for monies that, under NCLB, would have been dedicated for tutoring, school choice, or school improvement.” Mr. Briscoe said in an email.

Response Murky

It’s unclear whether states and districts will choose to take the department up on that suggestion. State applications were largely murky about what the states would do with the newly freed-up money, said Mr. Balfanz.

Elliot M. Regenstein, a partner at Education Counsel, a Washington-based consulting organization that works with states, nonprofits, and foundations on major policy issues, agreed that there was a lack of specificity in some of the applications when it comes to paying for school turnaround efforts.

“There was not a lot of discussion of states’ putting their own skin in the [school improvement] game,” said Mr. Regenstein, who worked with some states on their waiver plans and has examined the school improvement portions of waiver applications.

But, he added, that’s to be expected, given that the waiver applications were due in February, a time when most state legislatures hadn’t gotten far in the budget-wrangling process.

Still, Mr. Regenstein cautioned, “some states have a history of committing resources on behalf of [low-performing] schools, and other states are still getting there.”

States have some flexibility when it comes to intervening in focus schools, but the federal department gave a specific set of strategies states must use in their priority schools—those in the bottom 5 percent. Among them, priority schools must redesign the school day or year to provide more time for learning and upgrade instructional programs.

Some states said in their applications that they would use the freed-up choice and tutoring money for school improvement programs.

For instance, Colorado’s application—which was among those approved in the first round of applications—specifies that priority schools must continue to offer tutoring services. Any leftover money can be directed to a single school that falls in the bottom 5 percent—or be spread to all the district’s schools in that category.

In Georgia, schools that fall into the priority or focus category would have to set aside 5 percent of their Title I money to put in place a new “flexible learning program” offering extra tutoring to students. Schools in the priority category also will have to direct 10 percent of their Title I dollars to professional development.

On the Edge

Officials in Kentucky are worried about finding funds for the state’s focus schools—those in danger of slipping into the abyss, said Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the state department of education.

“These schools are really going to need help to keep them from becoming persistently low-achieving schools,” she said. “You can’t fix a problem by throwing money at it. But money sure makes it a lot easier for schools to get the things they wouldn’t have access to.”

Ms. Gross acknowledged that the state can’t force districts to direct the freed-up choice and tutoring money to those activities, but she said, “We can certainly strongly encourage that they do that.”

Meanwhile, the Center for American Progress report found that state waiver applications weren’t very specific about how to change the school day to include extra instructional time or more opportunity for teachers to collaborate. The think tank listed the Colorado, New Mexico, and Tennessee applications as exceptionally weak in that area.

And seven states—Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Oklahoma—were put in the category of “committed but missing details” on expanded learning time. Only Massachusetts was singled out as a star when it comes to thinking through plans for adding time to the school day.

Under the waivers, states can tap aid from the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, a federal fund, to pay for adding extra time to the school day, which can be a costly venture. Those funds are normally used to cover the cost of after-school or summer programs.

Eight of the 11 states that had their applications approved have decided to take the department up on its offer, but at least five did not explain how the flexibility would be used, the cap report found.

A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2012 edition of Education Week as Waiver Promises May Put Squeeze on States

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