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Will Funding Flexibility for Schools Come With Sequestration Cuts?

So now that school districts are coping with a 5 percent across-the-board cut to all federal programs, thanks to sequestration, many advocates are asking the department for what they see as the next best thing to more money: Greater flexibility with the funds they actually have.

For instance, advocates are wondering how the cuts will affect maintenance of effort, which requires states and districts to keep their own spending up at a certain level in order to tap federal funds. Do they get a break because they're getting less Title I and special education money?

Nope, department officials told advocates on a conference call about the cuts earlier this month. Just because schools are getting less money this year doesn't mean the department can issue a blanket waiver to change key parts of the laws that govern funding for Title I grants to districts and special education, officials told advocates. (Daren Briscoe, a spokesman for the department, confirmed that information.)

Advocates also wanted to know whether schools would be able to get a waiver from the rules that govern "carryover" of Title I funds. In general, districts can't keep more than 15 percent of their Title I funds from one year and spend them in a subsequent year. That allows districts to build up a bit of a reserve, if they need to, but doesn't allow them to sit on tons of Title I cash.

But, given that there is less Title I money this year, some schools would like to carry over a greater portion of the dollars to tide them over. The department told advocates that was something they would be willing to consider—which was also what Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education Deb Delisle said during a Council of the Great City Schools meeting. My colleague, Lesli Maxwell, wrote about it here.

And advocates also asked a big question: Would the department be willing to allow districts in states that haven't received a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act to stop putting aside a portion of their Title I dollars for choice and tutoring? After all, districts in states that have gotten waivers no longer need to take that step. That sort of flexibility could be a big deal, politically, since it would give states a chance to get out of a major requirement of the NCLB law, without necessarily promising anything in return, as waiver states have. Department officials said they would consider the step, according to advocates. But it's not clear how serious they are about it; Briscoe declined to comment on the issue.

Another flexibility question that's still hanging out there: Will states be able to set aside 4 percent of Title I funding for school improvement activities? Right now, states can do that, as long as they hold districts harmless (meaning, make sure they get the same amount of Title I funding that they got the previous year). But it's going to be tough for states to do that, given the 5 percent cut. And losing the money will make it harder for them to finance state-level technical assistance and support for school improvement activities, a lot of which is demanded in the ESEA waivers. This issue has been sitting out there for a while. In fact, North Carolina Supt. June Atkinson brought up this issue when she testified before Congress about sequestration last summer.

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