CAP Report: Harnessing the Power of Competition

More encouraging news on the School Improvement Grant front.  Today, Jeremy Ayers  from the Center for American Progress, guest blogs for Mass Insight about CAP’s latest report on state grant-making strategies for federal school improvement dollars.

By Jeremy Ayers

A small change in federal policy can lead to big changes in state and local practice. That’s what we found in a new report on the School Improvement Grant program, released yesterday at an event in Washington.

In 2009 the Department of Education required states to award SIG dollars to districts on a competitive basis. From a deep dive in three states (IL, LA, VT), my colleague Melissa Lazarín found that two states responded by making their grant process more rigorous and selective. At the same time all three provided greater technical assistance and support to districts so that they were in a better position to compete. State officials reported that federal funds have aided low-performing schools and that the 2009 shift positively changed the way they interact with school districts. Coupled with new data showing promising academic gains in SIG schools, we think this is a good sign on the school turnaround front.

However, all is not Lake Woebegone where every state is beautiful and above average. In practice, selectivity can still vary widely, and some states lack clarity in their expectations and consequences for districts with low-performing schools. Same old story: the devil is in the details of how well policies are interpreted and implemented.

Five significant findings emerged from our report that we think merit further investigation:

  • States still have flexibility in how they evaluate applications, the type and degree of support they provide, and their process for monitoring and renewing grants.
  • Access to SIG dollars is more competitive in some states than others. States face a persistent challenge in striking the appropriate balance between funding only high-quality applications, investing sufficient dollars to achieve impact, and addressing schools’ dire needs for funds.
  • States need to provide substantial technical assistance to strengthen the quality of applications. The new competitive nature of SIG does not, in itself, generate bold turnaround plans.
  • Application rates vary substantially across states. There are several potential reasons for this, including the rigor of the new SIG guidelines, the degree to which states provide technical support, and the perceived likelihood of winning a grant.
  • Lastly, the criteria that states use to monitor districts are clear but the process for grant renewal and termination could be more formal and transparent.

In the end, the switch to a competitive process stimulated significant change. The move to target federal dollars is wise given the current fiscal environment and the need to ensure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely. But states will need to continue building their capacity, increasing their support, and establishing clear and consistent expectations and consequences, in order to drive change through their SIG competitions.

Jeremy Ayers is the Associate Director of Federal Education Programs at the Center for American Progress, where he focuses on advancing the Center’s federal policy agenda including issues of teacher and principal quality, school improvement, and fiscal equity.