the sig picture

Turnaround funds fuel schizophrenic spending during recession

Chart showing change in states' school funding since 2008. (Click to enlarge.)

New York City’s controversial school turnaround proposals represent a tiny piece of a sweeping effort, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, to overhaul the country’s lowest-performing schools. In the second of three articles about the reform effort produced by Education WeekThe Hechinger Report, and the Education Writers Association, Andrew Brownstein looks at the strange juxtaposition of School Improvement Grants against a context of state budget cuts — an issue that is less acute in New York than in many other states but relevant nonetheless.

For the casual visitor, it’s easy to miss that Southeast High School in rural Kansas — once among the lowest academic performers in the state — is in the midst of a profound transformation.

Like so many other Kansas schools, the building in Cherokee (population: 722) shows the telltale signs of a suffering economy. Bus routes have been cut, as have supplies. Custodians, secretaries and cafeteria workers took an eight-day pay cut. During the harsh winters, students bundle up to make it through classes where the temperature hovers at an uncomfortable, but cost-saving 68 degrees.

But look deeper, and another picture emerges.

Every one of those students is assigned a MacBook for the year. Teachers use iPads on classroom walkthroughs designed to improve instruction and boost student engagement. And the entire school improvement process is underscored by consultants from Cross & Joftus, a Washington, D.C.-area consulting firm.

The schizophrenic portrait of school funding is not unique to Southeast. It is one of roughly 1,200 schools in the nation to win a federal School Improvement Grant (SIG), given to those in the bottom 5 percent in the country to spark radical improvements in school culture and student performance. The backdrop of the recession means that many of these schools have funding to do things they’ve never done at the same time that they’re hamstrung to fund many of the basic things educators typically take for granted.

State cuts

Southeast won a $1.4 million grant at a time when Kansas cut its education funding to the lowest levels since 1999. The grant allowed the school to take risks that have paid off: It has leapfrogged from among the worst high schools in the state to achieving “standard of excellence” ratings in reading and math, as well as 100 percent proficiency in science.

“The grant has been a stop-gap lifesaver to us in many ways, enabling us to continue moving forward when everything else is being cut,” said Glenn Fortmayer, superintendent of the USD 247 Cherokee school district. “If we didn’t have the grant, there are so many things for kids we couldn’t even begin to contemplate doing on our own general money.”

While there is some cause for optimism nationally — two recent reports found that states and districts thought the funding was helping — there are also fears that the slow pace of economic recovery could undermine whatever gains schools are achieving through SIG.

A report last October from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan policy institute, found that elementary and high schools in at least 37 states received less funding in the 2011-12 school year than they did the year before, and in at least 30 states school funding now stands below 2008 levels — often far below. The report warned of the impact of sustained decreases in the funding of federal initiatives like SIG, noting that “deep funding cuts hamper [schools’] ability to implement many of these reforms.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said as much in testimony before Congress in 2010: “It is very difficult to improve the quality of education while losing teachers, raising class size, and eliminating after-school and summer-school programs.”

Shortfalls in Philadelphia

That quote may seem prophetic to school officials in Philadelphia, where epic budget shortfalls have led district leaders to announce that they are unsure they’ll be able to meet their payroll obligations in July.

It’s a dizzying descent from just two years ago, when the district received more than $51 million in SIG funding for 27 schools, the largest total for any city in the country. The size of the grant was in many ways a vote of confidence in former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, whose vision of school turnaround mirrored the federal government’s. Among other initiatives, Ackerman ushered in “Promise Academies,” poorly performing schools that got larger infusions of cash to support extended learning time, new teachers and coaches and a “parent ombudsman” to respond better to community concerns. When SIG came along, it was a natural fit.

But after the first year of the grant, newly elected Republican Gov. Tom Corbett implemented an austerity agenda that cut $1 billion from education. Philadelphia, which has a nearly $3 billion school budget and educates some 12 percent of Pennsylvania’s public-school students, bore roughly one-fourth of that burden. The state cuts were the largest contributor to a budget shortfall that ballooned to more than $700 million — all but $22 million of which had been filled by the district as of March through cost-saving measures. Ackerman was ousted, and many believe her commitment to the Promise Academies, despite their cost, contributed to her exit.

It struck some as absurd that the city was keeping positions like parent ombudsmen and student advisers — both funded by SIG — while it was cutting teachers and not paying for textbooks. Massive teacher layoffs, which by contract were to be conducted according to seniority, led to a lawsuit when the district sought to exempt the mostly young Promise Academy teachers in order to preserve the program in those schools. After a lengthy court battle, the district lost, and the staffs the academies had carefully assembled were decimated.

Adding to the bitter taste left by the episode is a study performed by Research for Action, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit, which found that the academies performed better than a matched control group on every academic indicator measured. The state, however, is skeptical that the district can sustain those gains and is leveling a more serious charge — that Philadelphia is using SIG funds to back-fill the extraordinary cuts to state and local budgets.

‘Back-filling’ concerns

The first major sign of trouble came when federal monitors visited the city last spring. The U.S. Department of Education challenged the expenditure of $9.2 million — 73 percent of the district’s first-year SIG budget — on summer school, according to a report of their findings. The monitors said the district could be running afoul of a federal law that forbids the use of federal funds to supplant state and local funds. In November, the state responded that Philadelphia had been unable to provide documents to support the summer-school expenditures from 2009, adding that it “had little confidence in the ability of [Philadelphia] to provide accurate information.”

The state’s suspicions grew after a subsequent monitoring visit this February. “We started to delve into things and ask, ‘Where’s this teacher? Where’s this program? You said you were going to do this — where’s the results?’ And they simply can’t produce them,” said Renee Palakovic, division chief for federal programs at the state education department. “They can’t produce a body and say, ‘This person is the school-based instructional leader.’ They can’t maintain their extended-day programs because they have no money, so they’ve started to shut them down.”

More troubling, at least one school altered its SIG grant mid-stream to allow for the hiring of a science teacher whose position Palakovic said was eliminated due to the cuts. Philadelphia explained that the new hire was necessary to keep class sizes small. Under the law, reducing class-size is a proper use of SIG funds, but the state suspects this represents another instance of the district using federal funds to supplant state and local funds, a violation of federal law.

The visit left Palakovic deeply skeptical about SIG’s chances for long-term success in Philadelphia: “I just wrote an e-mail to my superior saying, ‘The results in Philadelphia are going to be slim to none because they’re not really offering anything additional in these schools. There’s nothing new. There’s no reform. It’s just keeping the boat afloat.’ ”

Fernando Gallard, a district spokesman, said Philadelphia was working to address the state’s concerns, but denied that Philadelphia was using SIG funds to back-fill cuts. Feather Houstoun, a budget specialist on the School Reform Commission — the city- and state-appointed body that governs the district — acknowledged that “successive belt-tightening had reduced the ability of the school district to track and monitor” its grant funding.

Returning funds

Federal officials said they were unaware of any other suspicions regarding the use of SIG funds for back-filling. Jason Snyder, who heads the turnaround office at the U.S. Department of Education, reported that at least 12 schools had their grants terminated or not renewed for performance reasons.

“Some states and districts have taken the courageous and rare step of terminating grants where the money is not being used well,” he said. “It’s important that the funds go to those schools committed to using them effectively to help their students and to doing things differently than they have before.”

Nonetheless, Philadelphia’s conundrum may underscore the importance of a finding from a March report by the Center on Education Policy, an independent education think tank. While more than half of 46 states that responded to a survey indicated they had adequate levels of staff expertise to help SIG recipients, only slightly more than a third felt their state had adequate amounts of staff and time to assist with program implementation, including monitoring.

The center’s report, which examined SIG implementation in Idaho, Maryland and Michigan, highlighted another aspect of federal funding with economic overtones. While districts had to list all of their schools that were eligible for funding in order to apply, they were granted considerable leeway in terms of how thinly they spread their funds — so long as no individual school received more than $2 million per year.

Haves and have-nots

This meant that states like Michigan, which had more than 100 schools in the bottom 5 percent, funded only 28 schools. In Saginaw, there are two high schools in the bottom 5 percent: Arthur Hill High School, which received a $4.4 million SIG grant, and Saginaw High School, which did not get funding.

“In Michigan, the non-grantee schools were not able to implement all of the things they thought would help them improve their schools,” said Caitlin Scott, a consultant who worked on the report. “Several weren’t able to do things like hire coaches to help them with instruction or extend learning time the way they wanted to.”

It is too early to answer a more compelling question: whether Arthur Hill High is showing greater gains in student performance due to the SIG funds.

The difference between the SIG haves and the grantless have-nots is playing out more starkly in Las Vegas, where the Clark County School District is in arbitration with its teachers union to plug an $80 million budget shortfall.

But due to the national scrutiny of SIG grants, Clark County is pouring additional resources — aside from the grant money — into helping turn around its SIG schools.

While the district is trying to pass a $10 billion capital improvement plan to rehabilitate its aging schools — many with failing air conditioners and leaky roofs — the district funded renovations to the campuses of all of its SIG schools last summer. Dozens of maintenance crew members cleaned all the campuses, some of which had been left in abysmal shape. Western High School, one of the oldest in the district, completed a new broadcast journalism studio, library and science/nursing classrooms. Renovations at another building, Chaparral High School, ran as high as $2 million to clean up graffiti, etched windows and feces in the bathroom. All of these funds were reallocated from the district’s maintenance fund, which pays for annual school upkeep.

The cliff

With the education sector of the economy emerging slowly from the recession, some states are anticipating level funding for their education budgets next year, while others are hopeful they’ll be able to restore some cuts. This hasn’t quelled a near-universal source of angst for SIG schools — the issue of how to sustain programs once the grant funds run out.

It’s a palpable fear at Harding High School in Bridgeport, Conn., where a $2.2 million SIG grant has sparked a fragile recovery.

With the help of Global Partnership Schools, a New York City-based consulting firm, Harding shows some encouraging signs. Daily attendance is up sharply, now at 85 percent, compared to 60 percent a year ago. And the number of failing grades fell to 26 percent in the first quarter of the school year, down from 34 percent a year ago.

While acknowledging the gains, new Superintendent Paul Vallas, a nationally known reformer, considers himself largely unimpressed. Given the size of the grant, he expected to see more visible signs of academic improvement.

And, like others, he worries about the future. No one knows what will happen to SIG-funded programs such as the reading laboratory, the summer and Saturday classes, the hallway “climate specialists” or a Virtual Academy for online learning.

“When you spend it as if it’s part of the operating budget, you have a tendency not to spend it efficiently or effectively, and you create a cliff, which means any success that emanated from the [grant] will quickly disappear once that cliff is hit,” he said. “This money is going to run out.”

Andrew Brownstein is an editor with Thompson Media Group in Washington, D.C. He writes about federal K-12 education policy. This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, the Education Writers Association and Education Week. Reporting was contributed by Robert A. Frahm of the Connecticut Mirror, Dale Mezzacappa of the Notebook, and Paul Takahashi of the Las Vegas Sun.

Board Approved

Newark will keep universal enrollment for now — even as key dispute between charter schools and city appears unresolved

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León gave a forceful defense of universal enrollment Monday before the school board voted to continue it.

Newark will keep its universal enrollment system for at least another year, despite critics who say it poses a grave threat to the district by allowing families to easily opt into charter schools.

The city’s board of education voted Monday to preserve the controversial enrollment system, called “Newark Enrolls,” which lets families use a single online system to apply to most traditional and charter schools. Just two years ago, the board tried to dismantle the system, arguing that it drained students and funding from the district as it fueled the charter sector’s rapid growth.

But, on Monday, the board appeared persuaded by the district’s new superintendent, Roger León, who said it is their duty to make it easy for families to send their children to whatever schools they choose — even private and parochial schools, which León said he hopes to eventually invite into the enrollment system.  

“That families today go through one system and have one application makes their life a lot less cumbersome,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to make sure that whatever they choose, they get.”

However, certain key details — such as how the system will handle “overmatching,” a process in which more students than typically show up are assigned to a school to address possible attrition over the summer — appear to still be the subject of some disagreement.

León’s full-throated defense of school choice is sure to surprise some community members, who had expected the former Newark Public Schools principal to rein in the charter sector after years of swift expansion under his state-appointed predecessors. Yet León has been open about his admiration for some of the city’s high-performing charter schools and his disdain for the district’s previously decentralized enrollment system, which favored families with the wherewithal to wait in long lines for coveted district-school seats or to apply separately to multiple charter schools.

Politics also may have played a role in the current system’s survival. In recent days, charter school advocates asked state Sen. Teresa Ruiz — a Newark power broker who is close to León — to help prevent changes to the system that they oppose, according to people in the charter sector.

Newark Enrolls also may have benefited from its relative popularity. A survey of 1,800 people who used the system this year found that 95 percent were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the enrollment process. And a phone survey of 302 Newark voters last month commissioned by the charter sector found that 52 percent of respondents favored the system, while 26 percent opposed it and 21 percent were undecided, according to a summary of the results obtained by Chalkbeat.

Yet charter schools — which now serve about one-third of city students — remain a lightning rod in Newark. Critics say they sap resources from the district while failing to serve their fair-share of needy students. In March, Mayor Ras Baraka called for a halt to their expansion.

Board Member Leah Owens, a former district teacher who is critical of charter schools, argued before Monday’s vote that more was on the line than the fate of the online application system.

“This is about, What is the future of Newark Public Schools going to look like if we continue to legitimize the idea of having privately run public schools?” she said during the meeting. “When we bring these schools into our enrollment system, we are saying that this is OK and that competition will improve the schools.”

Launched in 2014, the so-called “universal enrollment” system allows each family to apply online to up to eight traditional, magnet, or charter schools. A computer algorithm then assigns each student to a single school based on the family’s preferences, available space, and rules that give priority to students who live near schools or have special needs.

In the past, the district has allowed charter schools to specify how many students they want the district to assign them. Most request more students than they have space for to account for the attrition that invariably happens as some families move over the summer or enroll in private schools.

That practice, known as “overmatching,” became a flashpoint in the recent negotiations between León’s administration and charter schools, which must sign an annual agreement to participate in the enrollment system.

León’s side revised the agreement to eliminate overmatching, according to a person involved in the talks. Some charter leaders, worried the change would leave them with empty seats and reduced budgets, considered pulling out of the system.

The threat appears to have worked. The agreement that the board approved Monday still allows for overmatching, according to people in the charter sector. (The district has not made the agreement public, and officials did not respond to a request from Chalkbeat Tuesday to release it.)

“I don’t know anything about how that happened exactly,” said Jess Rooney, founder and co-director of People’s Preparatory Charter School. “All I know is that [León] got the message that that was of great concern, and he did a lot of work to address that concern very quickly.”

Charter leaders celebrated the agreement the school board ratified Monday, which they believe protects overmatching — a process they consider crucial for filling their rosters before classes start.

However, it’s not clear that León shares their interpretation.

In an interview Monday, he said the district would only send as many students to charter schools as they are authorized by the state to serve — even if they request extra students to offset attrition. If charters lose some students over the summer, they can replace them with students from their waitlists, he added.

“The legislature determined that there is a cap that they have,” León said, “and we’re sticking with that.”

Former district officials said that relying on charter schools to fill empty seats with students from their waitlists can disrupt district schools, which may abruptly lose students whom they were assigned. But León said that was not a concern, because charters can only pull students whose top choice had been a charter school.

“They have a right to pull that student because that student is not at their preferred school of choice,” he said. “That’s fine.”

Families can begin applying to schools for next school year on Dec. 3, León said. On Dec. 8, the district will host an admissions fair with representatives from traditional and charter schools.

In the meantime, the board of each charter school that plans to participate in universal enrollment must approve the agreement. Last year, 13 of the city’s 19 charter-school operators signed on.

Michele Mason, executive director of the Newark Charter School Fund, said she would defer to the district on “the implementation question” of overmatching. Other charter leaders insisted that the issue had been settled, and overmatching would continue as it has in the past.

Either way, Mason said she expects the same number of charter schools to join this year. She added that she was heartened by León’s remarks at Monday’s board meeting.

“I really do believe he values the options that charter schools give students and families,” she said.

Charter Dispute

As León pushes for changes, some charters consider leaving Newark’s unified enrollment system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark students arriving at a district school on the first day of class.

Newark families could have a harder time applying to certain schools this year if changes sought by the district’s new superintendent spur some charter schools to pull out of the city’s common enrollment system, charter advocates say.

Superintendent Roger León is pushing for the system to no longer assign schools extra students to offset attrition over the summer, according to people briefed on negotiations over the enrollment system. The practice, known as “overmatching,” helps both district and charter schools plan for the coming year, but it also ensures that charter schools fill their seats — something León appears less willing to help with than his charter-friendly predecessors.

The dispute means that district and charter leaders are still hashing out rules for the five-year-old common enrollment system just weeks before applications are due to open. Now, some charter schools are considering withdrawing entirely — potentially triggering a return to the fragmented application process families faced before universal enrollment launched in 2013, charter proponents say.

“Realistically, it’s possible that could happen,” said one of the people briefed on the talks who, like the others, asked to remain anonymous while negotiations continue. “We’re really late in the game right now.”

The dustup marks another instance where León appears eager to roll back his predecessors’ policies — even if it means moving quickly, before all the potential consequences are known.

On the first day of classes, he told principals he was eliminating extra hours for struggling schools, forcing them to scramble to reset their schedules. And before even taking office on July 1, he pushed out dozens of top officials — a move the school board, which was not consulted in advance, partially blocked.

One of those officials was the district’s head of enrollment, Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon. She oversaw the universal enrollment system, called “Newark Enrolls,” which lets families apply to most of the city’s traditional, magnet, and charter schools using a single application. After a chaotic launch that outraged many parents, the system today gets high marks on user surveys. Yet it remains controversial among critics of charter schools who view it little more than a ploy to funnel students into the privately managed schools.

One feature of the system is that it assigns schools — both charter and district — more students than they have space for. This “overmatching” is done to account for the attrition that occurs each year as some students leave the city or decamp to private or county schools. A former district official estimated that most schools lose between 5 to 20 percent of their assigned students that way.

Now, overmatching has become a sticking point in the negotiations, according to those with knowledge of the talks, as León has proposed ending the practice.

It is unclear why, and the district did not make León available for an interview. One possibility is that doing so might appease critics without dismantling common enrollment, which León has said he wants to keep.

But some people in the charter sector believe the superintendent, wanting to retain as many students as possible in the district, is loath to send charters extra students. That prospect has alarmed some charter school operators who fear they could end up with unfilled seats and reduced budgets, as school funding is based on enrollment.

To illustrate how overmatching works, a person connected to the charter-school sector gave an example of a high school with 100 available ninth-grade seats. In the past, the enrollment system might assign the school 115 students based on the assumption that roughly 15 students would not end up attending. If the system only matched 100 students to the school, then it could be left with 15 open seats.

“At an independent charter school, when those 15 students don’t show up, there’s no money coming from anywhere else to adjust their budget,” the person said. “That could put them out of business.”

If the district stops sending charter schools extra students, those schools are likely to start admitting more students from their waitlists. If that happens, district schools may suddenly lose students who were on their rosters. They would then have openings that are likely to be filled by students who arrive midyear, who are often some of the most challenging students to serve.

“District principals hate losing kids to charter waitlists,” the former district official said. “It creates a lot of instability.”

León met with charter-school representatives Thursday, but no final agreement was reached. Even if the two sides work out a compromise, the district’s board of education and each of the boards overseeing the participating charter schools must still vote on the plan.

They have limited time to do that without disrupting the normal admissions cycle. Typically, families can start applying to schools for the following year in the first week of December.

Newark Public Schools spokeswoman Tracy Munford said enrollment would start at the same time this year even though the district-charter enrollment agreement has not been finalized.

“This is in progress and we look forward to it being completed soon,” she said in an email.

Meanwhile, some charter school leaders have discussed the possibility of forming a separate charter-only enrollment system if they decide to withdraw from Newark Enrolls. The heads of smaller charter-school organizations are most concerned about the proposed changes, according to a person familiar with their thinking.

Last school year, 13 of the city’s 19 charter school operators participated in the joint enrollment system. (The others each handled their own admissions.) Most families who used Newark Enrolls were matched with one of the top three choices on their applications — 94 percent who applied to kindergarten got a top pick, as did 70 percent who applied to ninth-grade.

Assigning schools more students than they have space for allows additional students to be matched with high-demand schools, said Jesse Margolis, an education researcher who has studied Newark’s enrollment system. The schools end up with roughly the right number of students because some of those on their rosters never show up. And students who would have been assigned to a less popular school if the system hadn’t overmatched instead get to attend one at the top of their list.

“Overmatching is a way of helping kids get their preferences,” said Margolis, who co-wrote a favorable report about Newark Enrolls commissioned by the district’s previous superintendent, Christopher Cerf. “And it helps schools have stable, predictable enrollments.”

Correction: This story has been updated to remove an inaccurate explanation for why some charter schools are more wary of a change to enrollment rules than others.