ARRA Meets the Frontier

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One challenge for any federal program is to try to make it work, more or less, for each of the 50 states, regardless of size, demographics, etc. The Recovery Act may be having troubles accomplishing that.

In late April, 13 rural states sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, describing issues they face as they try to compete for ARRA school improvement and Race to the Top grants.

With respect to school improvement grants, the letter asserts that rural states are hard-pressed to implement any of the four available “intervention models” to transform underachieving schools.

For example, the letter points out that the “turnaround model,” which would require firing the principal and half the staff of a failing school, simply isn’t viable for many rural schools:

[M]any of our districts are considered frontier. . . .Districts in the remote areas [face challenges] regarding recruitment and retention of principals and staff. The challenges of these lowest performing districts do not rest solely on the backs of their principal, and we struggle to find quality administrators willing to take the helm of a school in such dire circumstances. Further, the idea of firing half the staff at these schools and finding replacements is a virtual impossibility.

Charter schools, which are also supported by stimulus dollars may also be unrealistic in rural states. It certainly stands to reason that there may not be enough students in rural areas to support charter schools. On top of which, as the letter notes, charter schools may not be viable politically. The states suggest that federal regulations could be removed from existing public schools, allowing states to use their existing resources in a charter school manner.

The rural states’ letter also says that the rigorous Race to the Top grant applications are forcing them to shift their attention and resources away from their main work at a time when they are already stretched thin.   Possibly true. But we’d be surprised if even the most densely populated states didn’t share that concern.

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