Monday, April 13, 2009

Stimulus: Milwaukee's Odds

Recent stories suggest that policymakers and education leaders are beginning to bank on competitive funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) that in actuality will only flow to reform-minded, results-oriented states and districts. I'm talking about the competitive $4.35 billion Race To The Top grants (for states) and the $650 million What Works and Innovation Fund (for school districts and nonprofits).

With regard to the What Works and Innovation Fund (WWIF), some things are clear. In order for a school district to be eligible to apply, they must meet four specific criteria, one of which is having met or exceeded the state's Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) objectives for student achievement for at least two years.

This criterion alone will render many school districts ineligible for this competitive funding. And that's OK, says the U.S. Department of Education. This WWIF is intended to take effective innovations to scale, not to provide districts in-need with additional resources. That's what the major injection of Title I funding in ARRA was intended for.

So it was curious to see this press release cross my desk ("Governor Doyle, Mayor Barrett Announce Effort to Reform MPS"). The joint release from Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett unveils a 5-point plan "to drive innovation, school improvement and fiscal responsibility" in Milwaukee Public Schools. Plank number one is this:
Compete for American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) funding - Working together with educators, parents, and the community, Governor Doyle and Mayor Barrett will lead Milwaukee-based efforts to compete for federal incentive grant funding available through the ARRA.
These highly competitive federal grants are intended to reward states and districts that are making major reforms to successfully reduce achievement gaps and improve student learning. There are a few clarifications needed here. First, Milwaukee won't be eligible to compete directly for the WWIF because it is a district "in need of improvement" under the No Child Left Behind Act--in other words, it hasn't met AYP objectives at all (and this in a state that has tried to game the system by unrealistically projecting that nearly all achievement growth will occur in the out years). Second, Milwaukee could apply for the What Works and Innovation Fund in partnership with a nonprofit, assuming that nonprofit could demonstrate impact along those 4 objectives. Third, Milwaukee could benefit from a successful Wisconsin state application to the Race To The Top fund. But looking at the chief criteria for that competitive fund--rigorous academic standards and high-quality assessments, pre-k to college data systems, making improvements in teacher effectiveness and the equitable distribution of teachers, and intensive support to low-performing schools--suggests that Wisconsin, at best, is a 30-to-1 shot. Given its track record (or lack thereof) on some of these education policy elements in recent years, it's going to have a difficult time competing with leading states. And the Education Department has been very clear that these dollars will flow to a select number of states. My money is on Wisconsin not being one of them. I'm an optimist--but I'm not that optimistic.

If I have time, perhaps I'll explore some of these policy issues in greater depth and why Wisconsin's recent failures to lead on reform will likely cost it these additional resources.

One thing is clear: State policymakers and district leaders should do their homework--and consider the odds--before counting on these competitive monies to fuel education reform. The check may well not be in the mail.

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