By Andrew Brownstein
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.
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.”
In Pennsylvania, 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.
Despite evidence of improvement in some schools, the state 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.
“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.
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.
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 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 and Dale Mezzacappa of the Notebook.