By the time Dan Wright took his turn at the podium before the State Board of Education last March, he already knew his district’s fate was sealed. The five schools in Stockton Unified School District that received funding under the Quality Education Investment Act, or QEIA, were going to be kicked out of the program.
“I knew the answer by the time I got up there; nothing I said would change their minds,” said Wright, the District’s Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education.
It came to pass on June 30. At midnight that day, those five schools became $1.74 million poorer. They are among 71 schools that have failed to meet their academic targets for receiving QEIA funding. More could follow next week, when the State Board takes up another batch of waiver requests.
QEIA grew out of a lawsuit filed by the California Teachers Association against then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for reneging on a promise to repay school districts and community colleges nearly $3 billion that was “borrowed” from Proposition 98 in 2004-05, which in turn affected 2005-06, in order to help get the state through a budget crisis.
Under the settlement, the state agreed to repay the money over seven years to the state’s 1,455 lowest performing, highest poverty schools. As it turned out, there was there was only enough money to fund fewer than 500 schools. The state allowed school districts to rank their schools eligible for QEIA in order to pare the list. In exchange, the schools had to agree to a set of academic and other conditions (see box on left) to continue receiving the money.
Set expectations, not prescriptions
Although the State Department of Education hasn’t yet released the final list of schools that will be asked to exit the program, about 30 percent of last year’s 474 QEIA schools fell short in at least one required area. Of those, the schools that missed their Academic Performance Index targets are most likely to be dropped. So far, 39 have asked the State Board of Education for waivers from their API growth targets and all but one were denied. (More on that in a minute.)
By and large, the State Board has been more supportive of waivers for schools that could not maintain lower class sizes and staffs of highly qualified teachers required by QEIA. Board members acknowledged that even with the additional money from the program, schools were forced to lay off teachers due to billions of dollars in education cuts in recent years.
There’s also a significant policy distinction when it comes to academic achievement, said State Board
President Michael Kirst. In an email to EdSource Today, he wrote that the State Board of Education “regards Academic Performance Index outcomes as the main goal of QEIA, and therefore has not agreed to waive this essential provision of the law. Class size and teacher status are means to that end.”
Stockton Assistant Superintendent Wright argues that if the goal is to improve academically, then QEIA’s academic algorithm is flawed. It requires schools to exceed their average API growth for three consecutive school years, beginning with 2008-09. Wright said that’s too rigid. He agrees that schools should have to show growth, but they should have a few years to show that. Nightingale Charter, for example, lost 42 points the first year – which Wright attributes to an awful reading program from the previous year – but gained 72 points over the next two years after the district ditched the new reading curriculum and the new superintendent who implemented it.
“The biggest issue is that line in the sand. You don’t set a flat line. You set the expectation that we improve, and there are multiple ways of showing that,” Wright said. “Every situation has to be looked at on its merits, and not every API situation is exactly the same.”
That’s the case with El Cajon Valley High School in Grossmont Union High School District. The 2,100-student high school was supposed to improve by 7.3 points, but only managed to increase its API by 4 points. It even missed alternative goals and targets that had been established. State Department of Education staff recommended denying the waiver.
But El Cajon’s waiver request was unique. In 2008, the San Diego County community became a resettlement area for Chaldean Christian war refugees fleeing Iraq. Nearly 500 enrolled in the high school over the next four years. The Board overruled staff and approved the waiver. “This is markedly different from any other waiver request that’s been before us,” said Board member Carl Cohn, expressing the other members’ beliefs that this was far from a precedent-setting decision.
A word about money
When the QEIA law was passed, California wasn’t in the middle of a multibillion-dollar financial crisis. As the magnitude of the deficit has emerged and education has been put on the chopping block, there’s been a lot of tension over what to do with money left over when QEIA schools drop out, lose enrollment, or are removed from the program. It’s about $138 million according to the State Finance Department.
The legislation has proven open to interpretation. SB 1133, the 2006 bill that implemented QEIA, says that any funds not used should “be available for reappropriation only in furtherance of the purposes of the bill.” Specifically, it required that the first priority would go toward cost-of-living increases and growth in the number of students in participating schools.
However, that hasn’t happened. The Legislature has used the money for other educational priorities, and the state Legislative Analysts Office wrote that the funds should be spent on other Prop 98 priorities. The California Teachers Association insists that the leftover money must be reinvested in the QEIA program because it’s part of a legal settlement. The teachers union expects that the state will end up extending the program by one extra year, through 2014-15, in order to avoid another court battle.