Here's What States Are Doing With Their ESSA Block Grant Money
For decades, district leaders have been clamoring for more say over how they spend their federal money. And when the Every Student Succeeds Act passed back in 2015, it looked like they had finally gotten their wish: a brand-new $1.6 billion block grant that could be used for computer science initiatives, suicide prevention, new band instruments, and almost anything else that could improve students' well-being or provide them with a well-rounded education.
But, for now at least, it looks like most district officials will only get a small sliver of the funding they had hoped for, putting the block grants' effectiveness and future in doubt.
The Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants—or Title IV of ESSA—only received about a quarter of the funding the law recommends, $400 million for the 2017-18 school year, when ESSA will be fully in place for the first time.
To help get bigger bang for the fund's considerably reduced buck, Congress gave states the option, for one year only, to give the money out through a competitive process, allowing for fewer, but more-ambitious projects.
Most states, though, still opted to pump the money out through a formula that assures each district at least some of the pie, an Education Week survey found. Only seven states have said for sure that they will run a competition. (More specifics below.) That means most districts will get a relatively small sum—as little as the required minimum of $10,000 for many districts—instead of larger grants to a fortunate few.
In fact, the program will receive so little funding that many districts could decide to take another option in ESSA: directing Title IV funding to another federal program, including Title II grants for teacher quality, which weathered at a least a $200 million cut in the most recent budget.
Here's why that may be a problem: If the money isn't used for innovative initiatives, advocates may not have much to show for the inaugural year of the block grant. That's not a great position for Title IV to be in as Congress and the Trump administration seek to hack domestic spending, including K-12 education. President Donald Trump put Title IV on the chopping block in his first budget proposal.
"The tough thing is that the block grant was set up to be reliant on adequate funding in order to be successful," said Ally Bernstein, a member of the steering committee of a coalition of more than 50 organizations advocating for Title IV funding. She's grateful, she said, that Congress was able to fund the program at all, and appreciates that the House of Representatives is seeking an increase, to $500 million.
But she would love to see all districts get funding and be able to spread their money out over several different priorities. "We want this program to live up to the promise of the way it was written," she said.
She's hoping the states that set up competitions for the money can show lawmakers what's possible when the grants are sizeable enough to make a difference. "The biggest change is going to come from these competitive grants," she said.
But Bernstein acknowledges there won't be as many examples to look to as she would like.
Just seven states said they were definitely planning to run a competition: Indiana, Minnesota, New York, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. At least of one of those states—Nebraska—picked the competitive option in part because it would have been tough to offer every district the required minimum of $10,000. And one state—Montana—is still trying to decide whether to allocate their funds by formula or through a competition.
A handful of states are trying for what they describe as a hybrid solution. Massachusetts is planning to allocate the money by formula, but any unclaimed funds could be doled out through a competition.
Rhode Island will pump the money out by formula, but would like to direct as much as possible towards two standing priorities: early literacy and advanced coursework, including course choice, said Ken Wagner, the commissioner of education. He sees this middle ground as the best approach.
"I'm not sure how that is helpful if we fund three or four of our 35 districts," Wagner said. "We also don't want the money just to disappear."
Hawaii, a state has only one school district, is planning to roll the money into Title II, the main federal program dealing with teacher quality. The Aloha State would get about $1.9 million from Title IV, a spokeswoman explained, which "would not be enough to fund a high-quality, standalone initiative in Hawaii."
The small funding levels don't leave much room for creative new initiatives, some local officials say. Betsy Webb, the superintendent of the 3,800-student Bangor School District in Maine, was hoping to spend the money on an item that's been on her wish list for some time: a new, STEM-focused project-based learning initiative for elementary school students. The district, she said, boasts a strong STEM high school, and she was hoping to get students excited about science early on in their careers.
The formula option was by far the most popular in part because it doesn't require states to choose winners and losers from among their districts, or set up a competition from scratch at a time when state officials are also coping with a host of other demands to implement ESSA, experts and state officials say.
For North Carolina, the decision to go with formula grants was about "timeliness," said Donna Brown, the director of federal program monitoring and support.
"It takes a considerable amount of time to develop a proposal, train peer reviewers" to examine different district's pitches, she said. "We didn't think it was reasonable" since the state's goal was to "get the money out as quickly as possible."
Brown said that she wasn't sure yet how districts would choose among the broad array of potential uses of the money.
"We understand that it's going to be challenging in some places because it's a small amount and they are going to want to put it to the best use possible," she said. If the program had gotten as much money as ESSA recommends, "obviously it could have had four times the impact," Brown said.
Brown isn't anticipating that many of her districts will take the option to transfer the funding to Title I or Title II—historically that hasn't been a popular choice in North Carolina.
But some district officials elsewhere say that combining the money with already-existing programs is the best way to invest such small sums. The 13,000-student Downington school district outside Philadelphia is the eighth-largest system in Pennsylvania and is getting just $10,000, nearly $1,700 of which must be shared with private schools under federal spending laws, said Emilie Lonardi, the superintendent.
"It's quite a small [amount] for a district our size," she said, noting that her overall budget is about $200 million. She decided to combine the block grant dollars with her Title II funding, which is going to an initiative aimed at helping teachers use technology. "Sometimes that money runs a bit short," she said. "So every little bit does help."
Nevada, on the other hand, is planning to run a competition and give priority to districts that have both financial and academic need, said Christy McGill, the director of the office of safe and respectful learning at the Nevada Department of Education.
"We really wanted the money to be able to make a difference for our schools, especially our schools that are struggling," McGill said.
The details of the program are still being worked out, she said, but she expects the state will give a leg-up to proposals that have some evidence to back them up. And Nevada may give priority to projects that address things like social-and-emotional learning and school climate, and that put a premium on intervening as soon as a student starts to exhibit academic or behavorial problems, McGill said.
Nebraska also decided to run a competition because it expected bigger grants could translate into bigger results, said Diane Stuehmer, the federal programs administrator in the state's department of education.
The state is setting its minimum grant at $30,000, which Stuehmer expects could make a meaningful difference for some of the state's small rural districts. She anticipates that larger urban systems, including Omaha and Lincoln, may ask for—and get—more money.
The state isn't planning to put a ton of its own guidelines around proposals.
"We're really opening it up to [districts] and hoping we get some innovative activities coming through," she said. And Stuehmer would like to see Title IV stick around for the long haul. "I would love to see more money so that all of our districts can benefit."
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