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State Leaders Hear How to Rethink Their Use of Federal Funding Under ESSA


How much should state and district leaders rethink how they handle federal funds under the Every Student Succeeds Act? Quite a lot, according to those who eat, sleep, and breathe K-12 finance. 

During a presentation at the Council of Chief State School Officers' legislative conference here on Monday, Mississippi education department officials as well as two Title I policy experts encouraged state leaders to work with districts on more creative uses of Title I and other money to better support student learning, and to make sure broader groups of officials are thinking about and overseeing how schools use federal funds.

"What we thought we knew about Title I, we can leave it behind," said Sheara Krvaric, an attorney at the Federal Education Group who's assisted states and districts in their handling of K-12 dollars from Washington, and who's studied notable shifts in funding policy under ESSA. 

To illustrate how much flexibility officials have that they might not know about, especially under the new federal education law, Krvaric noted in her remarks that many state chiefs are still surprised when she tells them that Title I funds (those earmarked for children from low-income households) and other federal aid can be used for purposes other than reading and math programs in order to support "a well-rounded education."

As you may know, ESSA doesn't change Title I funding as much as some lawmakers envisioned last year. But it does make a few notable changes to how federal K-12 spending works. For example, it will allow districts to apply for waivers from states to use Title I money on a schoolwide basis even if less than 40 percent of students in a given school are designated as low-income.

And changes to supplement-not-supplant, which requires federal funds to be additional resources for schools and not a replacement for state and local resources, could ultimately create breathing room for districts to try new approaches with Title I aid. (Although what those exact changes look like could be in dispute.)

Key questions for states to ask themselves are whether federal requirements, state objectives, and local needs are all aligned, said Melissa Junge, another Federal Education Group attorney. 

And Junge also encouraged states not to have a blinkered out when it comes to who has oversight of federal money. Different teams from different areas of K-12 policy should collaborate to work with districts on the use of federal aid, and to conduct oversight of how that money's used. And districts should have room to present new ideas when making applications for funds, particularly online, she said.

"I love the 'other' button," Junge told the audience. 

Mississippi is one state trying to change its approach. Mississippi chief Carey Wright, as well as Chief Academic Officer Kim Benton, presented the nuts and bolts of the Mississippi Comprehensive Automated Performance-based System (MCAPS).

The state is using MCAPS to make the Title I process for districts more transparent, institute online Title I applications for local K-12 officials, link funding to student outcomes, and provide a planning tool for both schoolwide plans and targeted assistance plans for federal aid.

MCAPS is supposed to work in conjunction with the state's School Effectiveness Review Process, which is intended to help low-performing districts (as defined under Mississippi law) use federal funds more effectively. And both MCAPS and the effectiveness review are supposed to help state leaders think and act more responsively to local educators, Benton said.

"We're actually changing to look like what we want to see in districts," she said. 

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