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Obama announces get-tough strategy for struggling schools

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 1, 2010; 1:16 PM

President Obama outlined Monday a get-tough strategy for turning around persistently struggling schools, offering an unprecedented increase in federal funding for local school systems that shake up their lowest-achieving campuses.

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Speaking before a meeting of America's Promise Alliance, an education group founded by former secretary of state Colin L. Powell and his wife, Alma, Obama called curbing the nation's dropout problem a pressing economic and social imperative.

"This is a problem we cannot afford to accept and we cannot afford to ignore," Obama said at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce headquarters. "The stakes are too high -- for our children, for our economy and for our country."

According to a White House fact sheet, "Every school day, about 7,000 students decide to drop out of school -- a total of 1.2 million students each year -- and only about 70 percent of entering high school freshman graduate every year." As a result of this "dropout crisis," it said, the nation loses $319 billion a year in potential earnings.

The problem is concentrated in the nation's poorest schools and among minority students. Just 2,000 of America' schools -- about 12 percent of the nation's total -- account for half of the nation's dropouts, and more than 50 percent of them are African American or Latino. Boys are also much more likely than girls to be unsuccessful in school.

Obama has sought to combat the dropout problem with an infusion of federal aide for school districts that come up with innovative plans to help students graduate. The president's budget for the fiscal year that begins in October proposes $900 million for school turnaround grants, up from $546 million in fiscal 2010. The economic stimulus law enacted last year provided an additional $3 billion for the turnaround initiative. The 2011 budget, released last month, awaits action in Congress.

While Obama has provided big funding increases, he also emphasized that schools can not attack the problem in isolation. "Education is not and cannot be the task of government alone," he said, adding that parents, business leaders and nonprofit organizations all have huge roles to play.

Several Democratic and Republican lawmakers have signaled that they may seek to revise Obama's funding plan, which would provide $50.7 billion in discretionary funding for the Education Department -- an increase of more than 9 percent -- but would freeze or consolidate some major programs favored by Congress.

With the proposed $900 million in school turnaround funding, Obama is placing a bet on four strategies to fix thousands of schools in which reform ideas have come and gone without success. Targeted schools include those with low graduation rates and the lowest-achieving schools in impoverished neighborhoods.

Each of the strategies, at minimum, appears to require replacing the school's principal. The "turnaround" model would also require replacing at least half the school staff. "Restart" schools would be transferred to the control of independent charter networks or other school management organizations. "Transformation" schools would be required to take steps to raise teacher effectiveness and increase learning time, among other measures. The fourth strategy would be closing a school and dispersing its students.

Obama's initiative seeks to tighten school accountability policies. Under the No Child Left Behind law, enacted in 2002 under President George W. Bush, the possible sanctions for low-performing schools range from school closure to a more open-ended requirement for schools to adopt an "alternative" governance strategy to raise performance.

Critics of school accountability programs say that the remedies are unproven and that the circumstances of struggling schools vary significantly. The mass teacher firings last week at a school in Rhode Island showed that drastic interventions can touch off political controversy.

But Obama indicated that sometimes such actions may be a necessary last resort. "If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn't show signs of improvement, then there's got to be a sense of accountability," he said.



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