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Did a Misunderstanding Put One State's Aid for Disadvantaged Students At Risk?

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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is not famous for pressuring states into desired outcomes. But late last year, her department did put one state on notice that a portion of its aid for disadvantaged students could be withheld, unless it complied with a specific section of the Every Student Succeeds Act. 

In fact, the U.S. Department of Education's decision to put Nebraska's Title I grant for local school districts on "high-risk" status marked at least the second time in 2019 that the agency put that label on a state's Title I grant.

Nebraska eventually satisfied the Education Department and got that label removed just before Christmas of last year—so did the other state, for that matter (more on that later). But the episode highlights challenges and disparities regarding ESSA when it comes to how states interpret the law when dealing with some of their lowest-performing schools; previously in DeVos' tenure, congressional Democrats and civil rights groups accused her department of approving state ESSA plans that didn't follow the law's provisions for school accountability.

The story also demonstrates where DeVos and her team have put their foot down when it comes to oversight. 

In a letter dated Sept. 24, 2019, Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Frank Brogan told Nebraska Commissioner of Education Matthew Blomstedt, that the department had placed its Title I grants on high-risk status because the state "did not identify schools for additional targeted support and improvement ... during the 2018-2019 school year." 

Brogan warned that if Nebraska did not identify those schools by the end of October, the department could take additional enforcement action, such as withholding a portion of the state's Title I grant. For the current fiscal year, the feds estimated that Nebraska will receive $74.3 million in Title I money; Brogan did not say how much of that aid could be withheld.  

Brogan also said that by March 2020, the state had to provide evidence that schools identified for additional targeted support and improvement were implementing plans to improve. 

So what are schools needing "additional targeted support and improvement"? That's a category of schools that states must account for in their ESSA plans. They are schools where at least one subgroup of vulnerable students, such as English-language learners or economically disadvantaged students, is struggling as much as the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state. 

However, this is a tricky category because states are also technically allowed to pick "additional targeted support and improvement" from a separate category of "targeted support and improvement" schools—ESSA leaves gives states a lot more leeway to define what that second label means in practice.That's meant in some states that the definition of "targeted support and improvement" schools is narrower than ESSA's definition of "additional targeted support and improvement."

Ultimately, some advocates are worried that schools that should be tagged as needing "additional targeted support and improvement" aren't getting that label, and therefore are missing out on supplemental resources and other support. 

A spokesperson for the Nebraska education department put the issue down to a "misunderstanding," saying that the state "did not name [additional targeted support and improvement] schools until early October 2019, as we thought they were to be named at the same time [targeted support and improvement] schools were named."

When we asked Nebraska whether it had corresponded with the Education Department about this situation before getting its Title I aid put on high-risk status, the spokesperson replied simply, "No." 

By the end of the year, however, the situation was at least partly resolved. In a Dec. 16 follow-up letter, Brogan notifed Nebraska that because the state provided a list of "additional targeted support and improvement" schools, the department was removing the "high-risk" label from Nebraska's Title I funds.

However, the book isn't entirely closed on Nebraska's situation here. In that December letter, Brogan noted that the state still faced a March 1 deadline to show the Education Department that those ATSI schools were implementing improvement plans. The Nebraska spokesperson said the department is "on schedule" to comply with this requirement by the deadline. 

If this story sounds familiar, that's understandable. That's because last March, as we previously reported, DeVos put Arizona's $340 million in Title I aid on high-risk status. Essentially, the department said the state had not pinned down how its decision to allow districts to use tests like the ACT and SAT instead of the state standardized exam would meet ESSA rules for those kind of alternative tests. 

In July, Arizona agreed to administer the state exam to all 10th graders, and the department removed the high-risk label from the state's Title I aid. However, the state also had to follow up by providing information about its assessment system for peer review. 


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