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A Modest Proposal for Improving Title I Without Legislation

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.

Thank you, Rick, for giving us the opportunity this week to discuss ways to support high-poverty schools served with federal Title I funds. Specifically, we will propose three modest ways the U.S. Department of Education (ED) can help make Title I more effective for students by addressing spending, planning, and paperwork requirements that can unintentionally trip up schools. 

Title I is ESSA's largest education program, providing around $15.9 billion annually to schools and districts. The program reaches over 26 million students in more than 55,000 schools nationwide. Title I's goal is to help educationally disadvantaged students receive a high-quality education, but some of the program's technicalities can make it challenging to deliver on that goal.

Our posts this week will not address Title I's big-picture policy topics that are typically (and importantly) discussed in education policy circles, such as accountability, testing, or subgroup needs, but instead we'll focus on a few of the unseen barriers that affect Title I services. 

Today, we address Title I spending, the confusion that persists over how schools may spend Title I funds, and why ED guidance would be helpful. 

Typically, Title I schools spend Title I funds on remedial reading and math instruction. Title I permits spending on a wider array of activities—such as instruction in other subject areas (like science, social studies, art, or music), advanced coursework, counseling, mentoring, behavior supports, social and emotional learning, career and technical education, and much more—but schools have tended to spend on reading and math because these other spending options are not well understood. 

Unlike other ED programs, Title I does not have a "use of funds" section that lists activities Title I can pay for. (Title II, for example, has a section called "Local Uses of Funds" that lists 16 activities districts can pay for with Title II funds.) This is by design. Congress intended Title I to be a flexible program that lets schools tailor spending to their specific needs; but, without a list, schools (and the districts and states that oversee them) have struggled to understand what kind of Title I spending is OK. 

(And please note, none of this is to say focusing on reading and math is inappropriate. Our point is that schools often pick what to do with their Title I money without understanding all of their options.)

ESSA attempted to address this by being much clearer about the kinds of services schools can provide to students as part of a Title I program, which should help schools (and the districts and states that oversee them) feel more comfortable about spending Title I on such services. Also, Title I's accountability system now incorporates other indicators of school quality beyond reading and math scores, which might encourage schools to spend on activities related to those broader accountability measures.

But Title I spending patterns are notoriously slow to change even when the law itself changes, largely because of ongoing concerns about compliance.

ED could help alleviate compliance concerns by developing guidance on the allowable uses of Title I funds with examples of activities schools could choose to support if consistent with their needs.  ED has developed useful spending guidance before—like this, this, this, this, and this—but much of it is out-of-date and hard to find. And the fact that guidance is split across several documents makes it hard to navigate.

A single ESSA-era Title I spending guidance document could help. We know this from past experience. In 2009, ED developed guidance to help schools spend the extra Title I money appropriated through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This guidance was vital in helping many of the districts and states we work with rethink Title I spending. ED could update the guidance for ESSA, make it more user-friendly by having less text with fewer technical terms, and include more examples. The guidance should make clear the examples are only options, not requirements, and that Title I can support many different kinds of activities depending on school and student needs.

It is also critically important that ED ensure any guidance is understood by state departments of education (that monitor Title I compliance) and auditors to reduce compliance fears. Fear of monitoring or audit findings are big barriers to spending changes, so making sure monitors and auditors are aware of Title I's broad spending options is important, too.

At the end of the day, a proposal that ED develop Title I spending guidance might not seem particularly significant; but a school's spending choices have a direct effect on the services it delivers to students, how it schedules the school day, what staff it receives, and how its staff is deployed. The more schools understand their options, the better positioned they are to make effective choices for their students.

Melissa Junge and Sheara Krvaric

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