More Than School Safety: What the Huge Hike for ESSA's Block Grant Means
As part of a massive new spending bill, lawmakers are poised to provide $1.1 billion in aid that congressional aides say will help boost school safety and mental-health resources in the wake of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., last month.
The money is intended "to expand school-based mental health services and supports; for bullying prevention; and for professional development for personnel in crisis management and school-based violence prevention strategies," according to a House fact sheet.
But the increase isn't just good news for school safety and counseling programs. It also being cheered by everyone from advocates for music education to fans of dual enrollment programs.
The money would go to a relatively new program and very broad grant program, the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants, better known as Title IV of the Every Student Succeeds Act. Title IV received $400 million in fiscal year 2017 (or the 2017-18 school year).
This proposed increase would mean the program would get nearly three times as much money as it is receiving currently, and would make Title IV one of the largest federal K-12 programs.
Districts can use the money for safety and counseling programs, to be sure. But they can also use it for a broad array of other things: Advanced Placement course fees, computer science initiatives, dance programs, technology, physical education, music class, drug education programs to combat the opioid epidemic, and much, much more.
"We've tried to say this is not just a school safety" fund, said Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, the director of government relations at the National Association of School Psychologists. "We would love for districts to invest as much as possible in counseling. We also recognize and value the importance of a well-rounded education."
Title IV was created when Congress combined a bunch of smaller programs—including one targeted at just school counseling—into what was supposed to be a big, flexible funding stream.
In addition, ESSA allows districts to transfer all of their Title IV money into Title II, which funds educator development. And it's possible many will take that option. In fact, the state of Hawaii, which includes just one statewide school district, opted to do that this school year. (The new spending bill flat-funds Title II at $2.1 billion.)
There's no way to know how much money will go to school safety or mental health, as opposed to a wide range of other priorities, experts say. Districts that get more than $30,000 must do an examination to figure out what their needs are.
"It's hard to figure out how districts might spend the money because for any district that gets at least $30,000, they have to tailor their spending to their specific needs. And needs are going to vary from district to district," said Sheara Krvaric, a partner at the Federal Education Group, a law and consulting firm that works on education funding issues. "It's sort of difficult to predict where the spending might fall out."
With Title IV receiving $400 million, many districts have gotten just $10,000, and school leaders have often decided that it's easier just to transfer that money to Title II than to figure out another use of it.
Advocates are welcoming the larger grants. But they do come with more strings. A district that gets a grant of more than $30,000 under Title IV must use 20 percent of its funding 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.
That means not all of the money could go to school safety or mental health, even if districts wanted to spend it that way.
The spending bill hasn't made it over the legislative finish line, but at least one school leader already has ideas on how to use the new money.
Dr. Kristi Sandvik, superintendent of the Buckeye Elementary District in Arizona, not far from Phoenix, got $18,000 from Title IV this school year, which she is using for AVID, a college-readiness program. But she has some thoughts about what she'd do if that grant were nearly tripled. She'd love to put it towards mental health services for her 5,200-student district.
Eighty percent of the children in Buckeye qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch and a hefty number are in foster care. Kids in poverty have unique emotional needs, Sandvik said, and she'd like to do more to help them. She'd like to consider using the money to help hire a social worker, or create an afterschool program serving kids who need behavioral support.
The increase for Title IV isn't the only resource in the legislation for school safety and mental health.
The bill also includes a $22 million increase for the Department of Education to help improve school climates and prevent violence, and a $25 million increase Department of Health and Human Services program that provide mental health support to schools and school age children, as well as other resources. More here.
Image: Getty Images
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