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Numbers for ailing schools don’t work

The Athens Banner-Herald Understandably, much of the reporting done across the state in connection with an announcement that Georgia will receive $122 million in taxpayer funds for its persistently lowest-achieving public schools through the federal School Improvement Grants program focused on local concerns. In this newspaper, for example, a Wednesday story identified only the seven Athens-Clarke County schools that could qualify for a share of the funding. Similarly, an Augusta Chronicle story mentioned only the three Richmond County high schools eligible for the money, and a Marietta Daily Journal story specifically noted only the Cobb County and Marietta schools on the list, but it did include information linking readers to an Internet listing, on the federal Department of Education’s Web site, of all schools in the state that could qualify for a share of the money. This isn’t intended as any sort of media criticism, but only to make the point that while $122 million sounds like a lot of money when it is mentioned in connection with only a handful of schools, there are more than a handful of schools in Georgia that are, or could be, eligible for the money. The money will be distributed by the state under a competitive application process. According to the terms under which the money will be distributed, state-identified “persistently lowest achieving schools” will have the first chance at the dollars, while schools that have failed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress standards for the past two years, but haven’t been identified as “persistently lowest achieving,” are eligible for the dollars only after all the “persistently lowest achieving” schools have received funds. The federal taxpayer dollars could go to anywhere from 35 schools to about 200 schools in Georgia. Thus, the School Improvement Grants program could bring a one-time infusion of cash averaging between $610,000 and $3.5 million into the schools that are awarded funding under the grant program. To gain some perspective on those numbers – and putting aside the question of whether it’s an exorbitant amount of money for a 22-school system with slightly more than 12,000 students enrolled – it’s important to note that the Clarke County School District’s current budget stands at $130 million. It’s also important to note that to get a School Improvement Grant – which, remember, is a one-time infusion of cash, although grant rules would allow the money to be spent over three years – an applying school system would have to agree to one of four plans for dealing with their lowest-performing schools. They include replacing the principal, screening school staff and rehiring no more than half of the teachers, in addition to reforming curriculum, adopting a new governance structure, working on professional development, extending learning time and embracing other strategies; closing the school and reopening it as a charter school or placing it under an education management organization; closing the school and sending the students to higher-achieving schools in the system; or simply replacing a principal and improving the school with professional development, extended learning time, curriculum reform and other measures. While those plans might, in fact, have some merit, they clearly also would have some ongoing costs. Certainly, bringing new teachers into a poorly performing school could require offering higher salaries, as would replacing a principal. Those costs would continue beyond the grant period, as could costs for extending learning time, which might mean schools would be open for longer hours. Similarly, offering professional development opportunities to teachers would carry ongoing costs. Insofar as it might inspire some school systems to make needed changes, the School Improvement Grant program is a worthwhile initiative. However, the one-time infusion of cash, by definition, would not really provide for a sustained school improvement effort.

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