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See New Details on ESSA Funding for Healthy, Safe, Well-Rounded Students

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UPDATED

One of the big goals of the Every Student Succeeds Act was to give states and districts significantly more say in how they spend their federal dollars. As part of that effort, Congress collapsed a bunch of small federal programs aimed at health, safety, arts, technology, and more into a big giant block grant called the Student Support and Academic Enrichment grant program.

And Friday, the department put out guidance on how those funds can be spent. The guidance isn't binding, and it ultimately amounts to a set of recommendations.

First, though, a little more on the block grant itself. The law requires districts that get more than $30,000 to spend 20 percent of their money on an activity that helps students become more well-rounded, and another 20 percent on something that contributes to student health and safety. 

And even though districts are allowed to spend their money on technology, no more than 15 percent can go to technology infrastructure (such as laptops). Districts that get less than $30,000 don't need to meet these requirements, according to the guidance.

The department's big message in the guidance is that a "well-rounded education" it isn't just about music and arts, even though those are important. Well-rounded can include everything from foreign language courses to Advanced Placement to civics education to college and career counseling.  And districts can partner with post-secondary institutions on these programs. 

The guidance doesn't mention this, but it actually appears that Title IV may get a lot less money than the law recommends. ESSA recommended $1.5 billion for the program, but the programs that make up Title IV only added up to about $280 million in funding this school year. The administration asked for $500 million for the program, and a Senate panel wants $300 million for it. A House panel is seeking $1 billion, but also seeking to eliminate a number of programs. The budget likely won't be finalized until after the election, so it's anyone's guess at this point what spending on the block grant will ultimately be. 

King said on a conference call with reporters that the program can help states and districts move beyond what many perceived as a narrow focus on reading and math under the previous version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act.

And he said the department is working with Congress on appropriations for the program. He's hoping, he said, that districts will be able to use some of their state and other federal funds to supplement whatever programs they decide to spend their Title IV dollars on.

But he acknowledged that, "certainly resources are going to be a challenge here because the areas covered by Title IV are so expansive."

He added that the department's proposed, and highly controversial, regulations on a spending provision in ESSA known as supplement-not-supplant could help schools serving low-income students get access to their fair share of funding. That would allow them to make the most of the block grant. 

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Some highlights from the guidance:

State Role: Even though most of the money—95 percent—must go to districts, the state will have to develop districts' application for the funds. States can use this opportunity to influence how districts spend their money, the guidance says.

For instance, states can offer matching grants to districts that plan to use the money for a particular purposes, such as improving school climate or putting in place new, more rigorous classes. States can also encourage districts to apply as a group focused on a single activity, which might help the funds go further.

Two birds, one stone: What if a district wants to spend money on an activity that arguably hits both the health and safety and well-rounded categories? The department gives the example here of a student trauma recovery program that utilizes an arts curriculum. In that case, the district should explain in its application how its proposal fits into both categories and it'll be up to the state to give the thumbs up or down.

Spreading around the money. Districts don't have to give each of their schools a piece of the Title IV funding. They can concentrate on just schools that show the greatest need for the funds. 


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