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Early ESSA Plans Favor Cash to Districts Over Optional Set-Asides



The Every Student Succeeds Act contains two notable opportunities for states to set aside money that otherwise would have gone to districts under federally set formulas, and use it for specific programs or purposes. So in the first round of ESSA plans, how popular are these set-asides?

First, let's explain what these two options are:

  • States can set aside 3 percent of their Title I money for direct student services. It can be spent on a variety of services, from course choice and credit recovery to personalized learning and public school choice. More on course choice here.
  • States also can set aside 3 percent of their Title II money to promote support for principals and other school leaders. 

So we polled the 15 states and the District of Columbia that have submitted their ESSA plans so far, and we also poked around in their ESSA plans, to see which are choosing to use the direct student services set-aside, and how many are choosing to set aside money under Title II. Here's your tally:

In case the graphic isn't working for you: Just two states, Louisiana and New Mexico, say they plan to use the direct student services set-aside. As we wrote about in our course-choice story, both of those states already have course choice. The Title II set-aside is more popular, with six states planning to use it: Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Tennessee, and Vermont. 

As for that one state in the "to be determined" column? That's Maine. A spokeswoman for the state education department said it hasn't made up its mind yet whether to use the Title II set-aside for the 2017-18 school year. 

Why isn't the direct student services, or DSS, set-aside more popular so far? Michele McLaughlin of the Knowledge Alliance said that while there's carryover to ESSA from the supplemental education services provision of the No Child Left Behind Act, states in many instances are afraid to try something new as they're gearing up for the first year of ESSA in 2017-18. (Rick Hess wrote at his edweek.org opinion blog about how direct student services differs from that old provision of NCLB.)

In order to get more states to do it, something like the DSS set-aside needs to be pushed by influential officials, including leaders like U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. "They have to promote it. ... They're in the best position," McLaughlin said of federal K-12 officials. Because DSS can fund a variety of programs that don't necessarily fit neatly into one category, McLaughlin called that set-aside an "island of misfit toys."

And in general, it can be politically tricky for states to set aside money that would otherwise go to their local districts, McLaughlin said. Indeed, New Jersey addressed why it chose to take neither set-aside in a summary of its ESSA plan: "With federal budget levels already uncertain, the [state education department] plans to ensure that districts get the maximum amount of funding they are entitled to."

Video: ESSA Explained in 3 Minutes

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