SIG and the Omnibus
Buried in the massive fiscal year 2014 omnibus spending bill just introduced in Congress is a pretty devastating cut to the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. Congress chose to provide only $505 million in funding for the SIG program, which is the same level of funding it received in 2013 — and far less than the $658 million requested in the president’s budget.
It’s easy to interpret this cut as a rebuke of the U.S. Department of Education. Congress is rightfully concerned about recent reports on the department’s handling of SIG program data. But let’s be clear: SIG funds, on the ground, work. The program provides dollars that go to states, districts, and schools to help them carry out what we all seem to agree is worthy policy — turning around low-performing schools. Cutting those funds is a problem. If Congress is upset at the Department of Education, then it should seek reforms from the department; ask for data, reports, investigations — whatever it takes to see that the department is improving its handling of the SIG program. But if Congress expects states to turn around their lowest performing schools, then don’t cut their funding to accomplish that important task.
Congress also made some substantive changes to the SIG program, allowing states to adopt their own turnaround model, approving the use of a whole school reform model, and allowing rural states to opt out of one provision of each of the existing models. There’s no formula for turning around a school; and smart, dedicated people have, and will, continue to debate whether these models are the right ones.
What there should be no debate about is funding programs that aim to improve outcomes for students attending persistently low-performing schools. Current federal education policy — adopted in both the pending House and Senate Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization bills — focuses its attention on the lowest performing schools. That policy grants states wide flexibility in their approach to higher performing schools so that a state can focus in a laser-like way on turning around its lowest performers. Despite that policy, and apparent congressional acceptance of it, Congress chose not to fund the one program that provides states and schools dollars to carry it out.