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March 1 2010

Give Turnaround Grants to Students, Not States, Schools

Vicki E. Alger

Currently, total education spending will amount to $543 billion for the 49.8 million students attending 99,000 public elementary and secondary schools nationwide. Apparently, that's not enough.

[Correction: my March 1 post said this was federal education spending.]

Today President Obama joined General Colin Powell, America's Promise Alliance Chair Alma Powell, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to announce the formation of Grad Nation, a 10-year campaign to reverse the dropout crisis and prepare students for success in college, work and life. The new program will target 5,000 of the country's worst performing schools, beginning with the country's lowest-performing 1,000 schools.

Under the plan, Secretary Duncan will award $900 million in grants next year to qualifying school districts that improve teacher effectiveness; adopt a "turnaround model" that includes replacing principals and staff; enact a "restart" model that puts failing schools under calls charter management; or follows a "closure" model that sends students to better schools within the district. The president plans to spend another $50 million on dropout-prevention strategies.

"This is a problem we can't afford to accept or ignore," said President Obama, according to the Los Angeles Times. "The stakes are too high -- for our children, for our economy, for our country. It's time for all of us to come together -- parents and students, principals and teachers, business leaders and elected officials -- to end America's dropout crisis."

Unfortunately, directing lavish subsidies to schools districts has a poor turn-around track record. Directing those resources to parents instead in the form of grants so they can pick their children's schools has a much better chance of success.

Based on evaluations from the president's own education department low-income students using D.C. Opportunity Scholarships worth just a third of what the District would spend to educate them in public schools perform up to two years ahead of their public-school peers in reading.

Low-income students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program using scholarships worth less than half of what it would cost to educate them in public schools have a graduation rate 18 percent higher than students in Milwaukee Public Schools. According to education experts, "school-choice programs that include alternatives to traditional public high schools may reduce high-school dropout rates and promote college attendance."

Approximately half a million students likely attend the country's worst performing schools. The nearly $1 billion in turnaround grants could fund scholarships worth nearly $2,000 to help students attend better schools or get tutoring from providers their parents prefer. That would be a better approach than giving more money to districts that have thus far refused to reform.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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