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Affluent Schools Raking in Shares of State Achievement Rewards

Education: Lower-performing and less wealthy areas aren't qualifying at the same rate, but Orange County districts buck that trend.


Every school in San Marino qualified for cash awards from the state. So did every school in La Canada. And Agoura Hills.

Up and down California, the highest-performing schools found it easiest to qualify for a share of $677 million the state is doling out to reward achievement gains.

Although 62% of the very lowest-performing campuses qualified for cash awards, 80% of the highest performers were deemed eligible, many of them in wealthier communities.

That scenario was less evident in Orange County, where schools qualifying for the awards program were fairly evenly split between affluent and less-affluent districts.

The solidly middle-class Cypress and Los Alamitos school districts each had all of their schools qualify for awards. Poverty-stricken Santa Ana Unified put 78% of its schools in the running, while Laguna Beach had only 75%.

But Santa Ana Supt. Al Mijares nevertheless criticized the program for failing to address long-standing inequities between school districts.

"The whole intent behind the API is to help those schools who have been underachieving as measured on a test," he said. "Therefore, I believe money should be directed at those schools. . . . If the rich are getting richer, I don't think that's in the interests of public education."

Architects of the system said they intended to spread the rewards as evenly as possible among campuses that met their growth targets on the new Academic Performance Index. At the same time, state officials set aside $100 million in incentives exclusively for struggling schools that met their targets.

Some of those who designed the system now wonder whether it has worked as envisioned.

"There's no doubt in my mind that the equity issue can be improved," said Gerald Hayward, co-director of the think tank Policy Analysis for California Education and a member of the state panel that helped design the API.

He said the intent of the program is to reward excellence and to help motivate the low-performing to improve and close the achievement gap. "The formula may need some adjustment," Hayward said.

Overall, 67% of the state's schools--more than 4,100 campuses--raised their Stanford 9 test scores enough to qualify for awards. Schools must plow part of the money back into their campuses. They also can divvy up part of it among teachers, administrators, secretaries, custodians and other staff members.

Administrators in impoverished and affluent districts alike said they were not surprised to learn that higher percentages of top-performing schools were reaping the awards. Some school officials predicted that the program would exacerbate long-standing inequities in California's schools.

Mijares said schools like those in his district--which are among the poorest and lowest-performing in the region--deserve more money than campuses in wealthier areas that enjoy a range of advantages.

"It's not fair," said Mijares, who saw 35 of his 45 campuses qualify for rewards. "They have huge, lucrative foundations. They have parents that can afford private tutoring. . . . We're all for accountability, but the funds can be used better in these environments, as opposed to sending money to communities that already have so much."

But Dennis Smith, superintendent of the Placentia-Yorba Linda School district, which encompasses both wealthy and less-affluent areas, said the program seems fair to him.

Twenty-three of the 26 schools in his district qualified for awards, he said, and among those that fell short is the traditionally high-performing and relatively affluent El Dorado High School.

"It doesn't seem to be playing out along class lines, at least in this district," Smith said. "I would personally rank the program as a success."

Administrators in some high-performing areas were unapologetic about earning--and accepting--money for a job well done.

"I think our schools deserve the awards," said Carol Hart, superintendent of the Los Alamitos Unified School District, where all of the schools reported by the state were eligible for awards. "If you don't have incentive programs, there's not as much of an impetus for schools to improve if they already feel they're doing fine."

What's more, Hart said, school districts in affluent areas often do not qualify for federal subsidy programs enjoyed by poorer school districts, so extra money coming from the state in the form of awards is a big help.

"We really do not operate at the same financial level as school districts who are able to receive those fundings," Hart said. "In middle-class school districts, the resources are certainly very much needed."

Principal Arthur Fields in Beverly Hills echoed those sentiments.

"There's nothing wrong with our getting the money," said Fields, principal of Horace Mann Elementary. "I think it's fair."

Some experts questioned the value of the modest growth seen.

"Is this a good expenditure of money for the gains we are getting, particularly for higher-performing schools?" asked Michael W. Kirst, an education professor at Stanford University and former president of the State Board of Education. "Is this a good investment? That's what I ask. Am I willing to pay for one or two points? That doesn't strike me as a good investment."

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