Obama Wants 5k Closed Schools to Rebound

President Obama intends to use $5 billion to prod local officials to close failing schools and reopen them with new teachers and principals.

The goal is to turn around 5,000 failing schools in the next five years, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Monday, by beefing up funding for the federal school turnaround program created by the No Child Left Behind law.

Obama doesn’t have authority to close and reopen schools himself. That power rests with local school districts and states. But he has an incentive in the economic stimulus law, which requires states to help failing schools improve.

Duncan said that might mean firing an entire staff and bringing in a new one, replacing a principal or turning a school over to a charter school operator. The point, he said, is to take bold action in persistently low-achieving schools.

"Our students have one chance — one chance — to get a quality education," Duncan said in a speech Monday to the Brookings Institution think tank.

"If we turn around just the bottom 1%, the bottom thousand schools per year for the next five years, we could really move the needle, lift the bottom and change the lives of tens of millions of underserved children," Duncan said.

In particular, the administration wants to fix middle schools and high schools, focusing on "dropout factories" where two in five kids don’t make it to graduation.

Duncan, a former Chicago schools chief, has plenty of experience with school turnarounds. Chicago targeted several public schools for turnaround, eight of them last year, while Duncan was still in charge. It’s too soon to know how the eight fared.

What happens to teachers when an entire staff depends on local contracts with teachers’ unions. In Chicago, some lost their jobs, while some reapplied and were hired.

But in New York, many whose jobs were eliminated by school closings wound up in a reserve pool of about 1,100 teachers who have continued to receive paychecks while working mostly as substitutes.

Looming budget cuts recently prompted New York schools chief Joel Klein to tell principals they must stop hiring from outside and look within the teacher reserve pool.

The administration’s focus on failing schools is part of an effort by Obama to fundamentally change the perception of what works in education. It comes as the administration prepares to rewrite the No Child Left Behind education law championed by former President George W. Bush.

Obama already has channeled an unprecedented amount of money into traditional federal funding for elementary, middle and high schools in his economic stimulus law, doubling the education budget under George W. Bush.

But Obama also plans big boosts for newer and, some argue, untested ideas, plowing more dollars into school turnarounds as well as merit pay for teachers.

"Here’s a chance to do something dramatically different," Duncan told The Associated Press after his speech. "I don’t want to lose that opportunity."

Combined with the budget plan released last week, Obama may have as much as $5 billion to facilitate the initiative, which could translate to $1 million for every school targeted for turnaround.

The turnaround program currently receives about $500 million a year. The stimulus legislation boosted funding to $3.5 billion. Obama’s budget would add another $1.5 billion by shifting dollars away from traditionally funded programs.

Yet school districts and education groups are unhappy with the administration’s plan, because it would mean less money for everyone else.

The Title I program, the biggest source of federal dollars for schools, will rise from $13.4 billion this year to $22 billion next year. But funding would drop to just under $13 billion in 2010, a reduction to help pay for the school turnaround fund.

District officials had already planned their budgets and may have to use stimulus dollars to make up the difference, said Mary Kusler, a lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators.

"The increases that were provided to districts through the stimulus were not instead of future funds — they were supposed to be in addition to future funds," Kusler said.

Associated Press

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