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States May Get to Run Competitions for ESSA Block Grant Money

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One of the big goals of the Every Student Succeeds Act was to give districts way more control over their federal funding, in part by creating a new block grant—aka the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants or Title IV. Under the law, districts can use the money for a whole smorgasboard of things: student safety, dual enrollment, dance instruction, training teachers to use technology, hiring school counselors.

And the funding—a whopping $1.6 billion—was supposed to flow to districts through a formula, meaning that pretty much every district in the country would get a piece of it. The districts would have serious latitude in deciding the dollars are spent.

It may not quite work out that way—at least not this year.

Lawmakers are seriously considering turning Title IV into a competitive-grant program at the state level, at least temporarily, sources say. In fact, multiple sources consider the possibility of a competitive-grant program more likely than not this year.

Here's why Congress would make that move: Despite the lofty $1.6 billion authorization (Congress-speak for recommendation) in ESSA, there is almost no way there will be nearly enough money on the table to fund Title IV at anything close to $1.6 billion.

The Trump administration wants to slash domestic spending to bolster defense dollars. And even before Trump took office, financing for the program looked like an uphill battle. The program may be authorized at $1.6 billion, but the smaller programs that comprise it—including grants for elementary and secondary counseling, Advanced Placement, and improving math and science instruction—were only getting about $280 million a year, all told. The Obama administration pitched $500 million for the program in its fiscal year 2017 budget.

And the Senate panel that oversees education spending passed a bill that included even less, $300 million. Legislation in the House of Representatives got closest to the original vision of the program, a $1 billion ask, but only after making significant cuts elsewhere.

Lawmakers and advocates fear that if Title IV is funded at $300 million—or even less—and that money went out by formula, districts would get too little money to really do much of anything for arts education, health and wellness, safety, technology, or college readiness.

But, if the money went out by formula to states, and then states dole it out competitively to their districts, those districts could get significant bang for the buck.  

The disadvantage, of course, is that there would be winners and losers. And state chiefs would likely get a good deal of control of a pot of funding that was really supposed to be for district leaders.

Last year, the Obama administration also pitched turning Title IV into a state-level competition. And a number of advocates were pretty unhappy with the idea. Advocates aren't any more excited about the prospect this time around. But some see this as a way to keep the program alive and fuel future conversations on funding levels.

Of course, there are a number of questions lawmakers would have to answer if they decided to turn this formula program  into a state-level competition. First off, would states have to work with districts to figure out what the competition looks like, or could they just decide on their own? What kinds of allowances might be made for rural districts, which may not have the means to employ sophisticated grant writers?  

Another thing to consider: ESSA requires districts that receive more than $30,000 in Title IV funding to spend at least 20 percent of the money on at least one activity that helps students become well-rounded, and another 20 percent on at least one activity that helps kids be safe and healthy. And part of the money could be spent on technology. (But no more than 15 percent can go to technology infrastructure.)

One more wrinkle: Districts that get Title IV funding are supposed to be able to transfer it to Title II (the teacher quality portion of the law), and Title I, the main program for poor kids. So would districts still be able to do that if the program became competitive?

The proposal isn't a done deal yet, but if it happens, stay tuned for answers to all those questions.


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