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How to Ease 'Time and Effort' Paperwork Requirements

By Guest Bloggers Melissa Junge and Sheara Krvaric

Melissa Junge and Sheara Krvaric are attorneys and co-founders of Federal Education Group, PLLC, a law and consulting firm that works with states, school districts, and other educational organizations. They help school systems to leverage federal grants, find ways to do things that are permitted under federal law but not well understood, and help states and school systems avoid getting buried under federal reporting and compliance requirements. They'll be writing about how to make ESSA programs, such as Title I, work better for students.

This week we are writing about three modest ways the U.S. Department of Education (ED) can help to make Title I more effective for students. Today, we tackle paperwork. Sounds tedious, but bear with us because federal paperwork requirements have a substantial effect on how schools and school districts design and deliver services to students. 

In particular, we are focusing on a federal paperwork requirement that we first discussed on this blog in 2011: time and effort. Time and effort is not a Title I-specific requirement; it comes from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and applies to all federal grant programs. It means that if a state, district, or school uses federal funds to pay an employee's salary, it must keep records that show the employee worked on the program supporting the salary. For example, if a district paid a teacher's entire salary with Title I funds, the district must be able to document that the teacher worked exclusively on Title I activities.

So far, that probably seems straightforward. But time and effort gets much more complicated if an employee works on more than one program, like a reading specialist who might have part of her salary paid with IDEA for work she does with students with disabilities and part of her salary paid with Title I for work she does with Title I students that do not qualify for IDEA services. 

As we explained in 2011:

This all means that it is easiest to comply with time and effort requirements when an employee works exclusively on one activity supported by one funding source. If a school implements a comprehensive improvement initiative that is supported by multiple funding sources, the time and effort reporting can become far more burdensome.

As a result, these paperwork requirements can drive schools and districts to serve students in program silos, which at best is inefficient and at worst fragments services in ways that hurt student outcomes.

Again, as we noted in 2011:

The concept behind time and effort is completely understandable; namely, the federal government wants its grant recipients to be able to demonstrate that people paid with federal funds actually worked on the federal programs that paid them. However, because time and effort rules are confusing, compliance-oriented, and easy to audit, they encourage defensive spending—spending that is safe from an audit perspective rather than effective. [In fact], ED's [Office of Inspector General] has questioned hundreds of millions of dollars because of time and effort noncompliance. Understandably, this creates tremendous pressure to avoid time and effort related audit findings which discourages districts from designing comprehensive programs.

The good news is that since we wrote our first blog on this topic, OMB revised the time and effort rules to make them, potentially, more flexible. Previously, employees had to sign certifications listing the percentage of time they spent on various program activities. Now, federal regulations allow for different, potentially less burdensome kinds of records if they meet certain criteria. 

The challenge is ED has not issued practical guidance on these criteria, so we do not know how they might apply to K-12 programs or what compliant records might look like. As a result, most states, districts, and schools continue to use the same kinds of employee certifications as they used before the change. This makes sense because entities with noncompliant records may have to repay funds. 

To address this, ED could put out guidance with examples—specific to K-12—of records that would meet time and effort requirements. ED could reach out to organizations such as those representing school business officers, local superintendents, state educational agencies, etc., to understand what kinds of records K-12 entities typically produce through existing systems, like payroll or financial-management systems, and how those might satisfy (or be adapted to satisfy) federal time and effort requirements.

ED has shown an appetite for making time and effort more manageable before. 

For example, in 2012, ED released guidance designed to reduce time and effort burdens. Unfortunately, the guidance was released around the same time as ED's ESEA Flexibility initiative, so it did not get much attention. Now, the guidance is archived on ED's website (though according to a weedy set of FAQs released in 2015, the guidance is still valid). ED could update this 2012 guidance, expand it with additional examples, and make it easily accessible to states, districts, and schools, as well as their auditors.

Guidance of this type would be one way to break down program silos that tend to fragment student services. 

Thank you so much to Rick and the RHSU team for giving us the opportunity to blog this week. Education policy tends to focus on big-picture solutions to systemic problems, so we appreciate the opportunity to zoom into the smaller issues that have substantial effects in the classroom and can be addressed through mechanisms that are already in place.

—Melissa Junge and Sheara Krvaric

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