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Obama's plan to reward schools for innovation sparks debate

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 2010; B01

At Adelphi Elementary School, students peel away from their classrooms twice a week for tutorials in reading and math. Clusters of five or six children shuffle into a book closet, a hallway, a computer lab or any place teachers can fit a few chairs for 45 minutes of catch-up lessons or enrichment.

Such all-out efforts helped this Prince George's County school win a national award this year for gains in test scores. But the federal anti-poverty program that funds the academic drive at Adelphi represents a model of education reform -- spreading aid to states based on population and need -- that is fast going out of fashion.

President Obama aims to reinvent the Education Department as a venture capitalist for school reform, investing more in schools with innovative ideas. The Title I program, which supports Adelphi and thousands of other schools in low-income areas based on formulas of need, is not facing extinction. But Obama would freeze funding to the core of that program even as he sends billions of dollars to states that harmonize their policies with his.

The proposal splits congressional Democrats. They are staunch protectors of education funding for their states and districts, and many worry about promoting innovation at the expense of equity. Obama's $4 billion Race to the Top, a prime example of what he wants to expand, awarded large payouts in March to Delaware and Tennessee but left 39 applicants empty-handed.

Most states will not receive a dime this year from the school reform fund. Some senior lawmakers say there's a limit to the value of competition at a time of enormous fiscal strain on schools.

"We're all for improving our schools," Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, told Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a hearing last month. "But right now, many school districts are drowning in a sea of red ink. We need to help them keep afloat -- not have them filling out long applications to compete for grants based on a reform agenda that they're not able to pursue in this economy."

But others are backing Obama's bet on the power of incentives. "Ensuring improvement of education in a globally competitive economy has got to be the top priority," said Sen. Mark Warner (Va.), one of several Democratic senators who have endorsed expansion of competitive grants. "That means we've got to break a little glass and shake up the system."

Duncan is expected to pitch the Obama budget Wednesday to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The stakes are particularly high for schools such as Adelphi Elementary, in a working-class neighborhood near the University of Maryland. Eighty percent of the school's 400 students come from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Many are from immigrant families. Yet four of every five students passed state tests last year in reading and math, earning Adelphi notice as a "National Title I Distinguished School." The award is printed on bumper stickers Principal Jane Q. Ennis hands out to parents and visitors.

Maryland, which has no guarantee that it will score any Race to the Top funding, receives more than $180 million a year from the core Title I program. That translates to $250,000 for Adelphi Elementary for extra teachers, after-school lessons and other academic support.

One recent morning, the school was immersed in its ritual of 45-minute "pullout" lessons Ennis choreographs through constant scrutiny of test scores.

"We're going to talk a little bit about place value, okay?" math specialist Andrea Mark told five sixth-graders seated in a storage area surrounded by books, paper towels and empty milk jugs. She launched into a session on whole numbers, coins and decimal points. "So what's worth more, a dime or a penny?"

For every distinguished school, of course, another is languishing. The track record of Title I is decidedly mixed. Still, Ennis said the federal aid is essential. "The resources, support and services -- they all play a vital role in student achievement," she said. "Big time."

In the economic stimulus law enacted at the start of his presidency, Obama took a two-track approach to education funding: Shovel tens of billions of dollars to states to help them avoid teacher layoffs but hold some in reserve to leverage change. As the stimulus funds are trailing off, there is no assurance of any further federal bailout of public schools. Many states now face what experts call a "funding cliff" that will result in layoffs.

But in his $50.7 billion education spending proposal for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, Obama is seeking to build reform leverage. There would be an additional $1.35 billion for Race to the Top, $500 million for a similar contest called Investing in Innovation and hundreds of millions of dollars for competitive grants to improve teaching and school leadership.

An Education Department analysis found that about 20 percent of spending for kindergarten through 12th grade would flow through competitive grants under Obama's plan, up from 12 percent now. Formula funding overall would dip slightly. The main Title I program would remain at $14.5 billion. Special education funding for students with disabilities, another key formula program, would rise about 2 percent, to $12.6 billion.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) called the proposed special education increase "budget dust" -- a criticism echoed by Rep. John Kline (Minn.), ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee.

Many major education groups are also skeptical. They say schools need assurance of steady federal funding. To win a contest "takes capacity and skill and know-how and grant-writing savvy," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of urban public school systems. "Some districts have a great deal of that, and some don't."

Duncan has said repeatedly that the administration remains committed to basic spending to help those in need but that current practices leave far too many students in struggling schools. In the end, lawmakers will probably seek to push more money through formulas to their states and districts.

But the administration is so committed to incentives that it even provided Congress with one: Obama proposed a $1 billion education funding increase if lawmakers this year finish a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind law. Many experts say it's a long shot.

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