Saturday, June 14, 2008

$6 million state grant aims to move students from dropout to graduate

$6 million state grant aims to move students from
dropout to graduate

By Kate Alexander
Saturday, June 14, 2008

A Texas Education Agency grant program may open the
door for private schools to get public dollars to help
dropouts finish high school.

The $6 million grant, part of an effort to improve the
state's high schools, will provide money for programs
tailored to students who have dropped out of Texas
public schools. The objective is to help the students
earn a diploma or meet an alternative standard of
showing "college readiness."

The grant is open to public school districts, charter
schools, colleges and other education providers as
well as nonprofit organizations with experience in
providing educational programs.

That last category of eligible applicants allows for
nonprofit private schools to compete for the public
grant and has made the relatively small program the
focus of intense scrutiny. Religious schools are
eligible to apply, but the money cannot be used for
religious instruction.

As much as $150,000 in startup money is available for
each grantee, and additional money will be disbursed
based on each student's progress.

A private school, for example, could get as much as
$6,000 per student after the student passes certain
benchmarks, such as earning the credits to advance a
grade or getting a diploma, according to rules
proposed this week by the Texas Education Agency.

A public hearing on the proposal will be held at 9
a.m. June 25 at the Capitol Extension Auditorium.

Robert Aguirre, a San Antonio businessman who was a
founder of a $50 million privately funded voucher
program in San Antonio, said that private schools
should have a chance to compete but that they might
not jump at the opportunity.

He was asked by the state to pull together some
private schools and nonprofit organizations that might
want to apply for the grant.

Although the schools were interested in helping the
students, they could not make the financing work
because the money would come too late, he said.

"It was so bureaucratic and tenuous in terms of the
funding," Aguirre said. "It was a huge missed
opportunity by the State of Texas to really do
something meaningful to help some kids."

Public school advocates say that taxpayer money should
remain in schools with public accountability and that
the inclusion of private schools is an effort to
circumvent the Legislature's repeated rejection of
school voucher plans.

State Education Commissioner Robert Scott "has
basically thumbed his nose at the Legislature," said
Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston.

He questioned why the state should put public money
toward unproven private school programs when "we have
districts and schools who are successful that are
crying out for money to enroll additional students."

Districts have only recently been given more
flexibility to work with dropouts by holding
after-hours classes and serving older students,
Hochberg said.

Scott, who has dismissed critics' contentions that he
is trying to slip through a voucher program, said at a
recent legislative hearing that private schools and
nonprofit groups bring more people to the table to
address a dire situation.

"We have a tremendous dropout problem, and we need all
hands on deck to try to fix it," Scott told the House
Public Education Committee.

Scott noted that the dropout program is different from
a voucher program because the money goes to the
school, not to the student or his or her parents, and
does not reduce money going to the student's public
school district.

The Texas Education Agency is tackling a new and
complicated challenge by focusing on students who have
dropped out of school, and the state needs to corral
all resources and expertise to succeed, said Jan
Lindsey, the agency's senior director for college and
career readiness initiatives.

About 20 potential grantees have indicated that they
intend to apply for the one-year pilot program.

The application deadline is July 1.

Lindsey did not know if any of the likely applicants
were private schools. She said the agency is looking
at how to address the private schools' desire to have
the money made available earlier while also requiring
proof that progress is being made.

The Rev. Jayme Mathias, president of San Juan Diego
Catholic High School in Austin, said his school would
not apply for the grant. Though the grant's mission
fits well with that of his school, Mathias said, it
would be difficult to make it work with the school's
required theology curriculum and its work-study
program.; 445-3618

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