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Senate Uses Omnibus to Sneak in Change to School Improvement Grants

Published:  December 21, 2010

Last week Democratic leaders in the Senate proposed and then retracted an omnibus appropriations bill that would have funded all federal education programs subject to the annual appropriations process through fiscal year 2011 (which began on October 1st). Though the bill was never brought to a vote, and Congress looks set to put a decision on fiscal year 2011 funding off until early next year, it does give us some insight into things to come for education policy. For example, Congress buried language in the bill that would overturn a key Obama Administration rule affecting the School Improvement Grant program.

The School Improvement Grant program provides funds to school districts to help turn around schools that have repeatedly failed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress according to No Child Left Behind. The Obama Administration released new regulations governing the program in 2009 because of the dramatic increase in funding available for the program through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. These regulations created four models school districts can use in their turn around efforts. These models include turnaround, restart, closure, and transformation.

The proposed omnibus bill would have overturned a requirement set out by the Department of Education in late October to limit the number of schools that employ the transformation model for their school improvement efforts. The transformation model is considered the least intrusive of the four strategies defined by the Department of Education for school improvement efforts. According to Ed Week, school districts overwhelmingly chose the transformation model over the other models available, likely because it was the least disruptive.

While the transformation model does require that school districts replace the principal, it does not require them to fire any teachers. In comparison, the turnaround model requires school districts to fire at least 50 percent of existing teachers, the restart model requires districts to reopen the school as a charter, and the closure model requires them to shut down the school entirely. In drafting the regulations, Secretary Duncan likely chose to limit the number of schools for which districts could use the transformation model to ensure a certain level of rigor in the school improvement process.

But the Senate Omnibus bill attempted to reverse this regulation. After specifying that 2011 funding for the School Improvement Grant program would be $545.6 million, the same spending level as 2010, the bill states:

Provided further, That the grants provided in accordance with the previous proviso shall not be subject to the requirement published by the Secretary in the Federal Register on October 28, 2010 (75 Fed. Reg. 66368) that a local educational agency that has 9 or more tier I and tier II schools not implement the transformation model in more than 50 percent of those schools.

The Obama Administration has significantly strengthened the School Improvement Grant program with its rules, much to the chagrin of many members of Congress and many local stakeholders. By specifying four specific models that districts can use to improve their schools, the Obama Administration has made the program much more prescriptive and rigid. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have decried these changes as favoring federal control over local control of schools. Similarly, the models that require firing existing teachers or turning schools over to charter operators are wildly unpopular with teachers unions.

Though it’s impossible to determine the origin of the language in the fiscal year 2011 omnibus bill that would have overturned the Obama Administration rule, it’s pretty clear that its inclusion was intended to make the School Improvement Grant program less offensive to the teachers unions and appease members of Congress who believe the program is a federal intrusion into local education policy. Such political wrangling is not unheard of in appropriations bills, though it is disappointing to find such a policy shift buried in this last-minute appropriations bill. We hope this isn’t a sign of what’s to come with the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

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