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How Would Changes to ESSA's Block Grant Work?

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UPDATED

The Every Student Succeeds Act may be less than two years old, but its funding provisions are already getting a makeover, at least temporarily, in a spending bill expected to be approved in Congress this week.

The bill would make a really important change to the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants, or Title IV of the law (aka the "big giant block grant"). Some quick background: ESSA collapsed a bunch of smaller programs into the grant, with the idea of giving districts more say over how they spend their federal funds. ESSA envisioned Title IV as a $1.6 billion grant that would go out by formula to districts, who could use it for everything from school safety to AP course fees, to technology, to arts education.

But, in the funding bill likely to be approved this week would only provide $400 million for the program, which is obviously a lot less than $1.6 billion.

So lawmakers are allowing states to distribute the funds competitively, instead of by a formula. There would be some parameters. At least 20 percent of the money states dole out would have to go to an activity that allows students to become more well-rounded—that could be foreign language education, drama classes, dual enrollment, and more. And another 20 percent must be used for student health and safety—that could pay for school counselors, suicide prevention programs, anti-bullying efforts and other initiatives. The rest of the funding could be spent on technology. But a district that goes the technology route can't spend more than 25 percent of its funding on technology infrastructure.

Importantly, states wouldn't have to distribute the funding competitively. They could allocate it by formula, as long as each district would get at least $10,000.

And the change may not be in place forever. Lawmakers are hoping that they can come up with more money for the program next year, so the funds can go out by formula and every district will get a meaningful amount of money.

There are some rules for how these state-level competitions would work. States would have to give priority to districts—or groups of districts—that serve disadvantaged kids. And they would have to take geographic diversity into account, making sure they allocate grants to rural, suburban, and urban areas.

It's unclear just how many states will decide to go the competitive route. Let's assume the spending bill in Congress is approved. On the surface, the chance to create a new competitive grant program seems like a huge opportunity for state chiefs, since they may get quite a bit of flexibility to shape the block grant program as they see fit. For instance, a state chief who is very interested in say, dual enrollment, could possibly be able to allocate a big chunk of the money to helping more high school students take college level courses. (Just how much leeway state chiefs get could depend on how the U.S. Department of Education ultimately decides to implement the program.)  

But states may not take advantage of the leeway. In fact, David DeSchryver, a senior vice president at Whiteboard Advisors and an expert on federal grants, expects that for the most part, states will decide to spread the money around by formula.

That's partly because of the tricky prospect of creating a brand new grant program in a matter of months, and partly because it can be politically unpopular for states to create winners and losers among their districts.

"Unless the state is very determined and has a clear plan on how to use these funds, these funds are still largely at the discretion of the district," DeSchryver said. "It's likely easier to let this go forward as a formula program." The competitive option, he added, "takes an incredible amount of ambition and organization, and it may be not worth it."

What's more, it's not like Title IV funding came out of nowhere. The program was paid for in part by consolidating the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling program, a math and science program, and money to help low-income students cover AP course fees. Those programs cost less than $300 million combined, which is why Congress is having so much trouble coming up $1.6 billion for Title IV at a time when there aren't a ton of new resources in the budget.

Some district officials might be tempted to spend the money on the same programs and staff they used it for in the past, DeSchryver said.

"It's not like this is a blank slate," he said. "There are people sitting in chairs in district offices who were responsible for the former programs who [may] see these funds as a way to continue what they have been doing."

States might have the option of making the program competitive, but districts can still shift Title IV funds to other programs. ESSA allows districts to take any funds they get from Title IV and move the money into Title I, or into Title II, which pays for teacher professional development and class size reduction. And districts would likely still be allowed to do that, despite the change. (Transferring the money seems much more likely in states that decide to allocate it by formula, not competitively.)

Moving the money into Title II could be especially tempting because the program is slated to take a nearly $300 million hit under the spending bill, which would finance the department of education until Oct. 1.

Ally Bernstein, who is helping to lead a coalition of organizations advocating for Title IV funding, hopes that states and districts will take advantage of the block grant to make meaningful investments in a range of programs that foster safe and healthy school climate, ensure students receive a well-rounded education, and allow for the effective use of technology, as the block grant intended. The coalition, which includes more than 60 education groups is encouraging states to seriously consider the option of doling out the funding competitively. 

Districts though, may need to use Title IV funds to make up for cuts elsewhere, said Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director for policy and advocacy at AASA, the School Superintendents Association. 

"We will counsel our superintendents to put Title IV money into Title I and Title II" if they need to, Ellerson Ng said. By not fully funding the program and making cuts elsewhere, she said, "Congress has put them in an absolutely horrible spot." 

So what are advocates saying about the change?

The International Society for Technology in Education said it is "happy for the compromise" but bummed that the grant program's potential won't be realized this year. "For those school districts desiring to leverage the power of technology to personalize learning, close opportunity gaps, or provide professional development, receiving a fraction of expected funding will require them to defer their dreams for at least another funding cycle." said Richard Culatta, ISTE's CEO, in a statement.

Others organizations said the lack of funding may lead to tough choices.  

"By failing to fund this program at appropriate levels, many school districts will be left to make unconscionable and constrained decisions, while others will have no supplemental federal funding to support a well-rounded education," said the National Association for Music Education in a statement. 

And a coalition of more than 60 groups put out a statement saying that they hope Congress will fully fund the program next year. 


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