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How Washington Could Help Schools Use Federal Money More Freely

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Federal education spending has far-reaching consequences beyond just the programs it supports—but a variety of factors lead schools to needlessly restrict ultimately use it.

That's one main conclusion from a new report by Melissa Junge and Sheara Krvaric, two attorneys who consult with states and districts on school finance. In "How Confusion over Federal Rules Can Get in the Way of Smart School Spending," published by the American Enterprise Institute earlier this month, Junge and Krvaric say many districts continue practices, such as limiting the use of Title I funding to reading and math instruction, that the U.S. Department of Education doesn't actually require. 

In addition, they write, states often add their own rules for spending federal money that can exacerbate this condition, and can cause schools to exercise unnecessary caution and to spend money in unsystematic, fragmented ways that don't move the needle much. 

"Helping local leaders recognize that federal requirements have a wide-ranging influence on all student services, not just those that are federally funded, and helping them better understand and more easily navigate federal compliance requirements could result in more effective spending and improved outcomes for students," Jung and Krvaric write. 

This issue has been percolating in Washington for some time. In 2015, for example, the Obama administration released guidance for Title I spending that emphasized the various ways educators could use that money on a schoolwide basis to expand learning time, to provide full-day kindergarten, and to adopt school climate interventions. The guidance also tried to dispel what it termed "misunderstandings" about Title I, such as the belief that it "may only be used to serve low-achieving students" or that "Title I may only be used to provide remedial instruction." 

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos released Title I guidance last June that she said "makes clear that a school district has significant flexibility in how it demonstrates compliance with the law." Still, Junge and Krvaric say that districts must consider several rules around eligibility, reporting, and spending timelines for federal education funds. 

So what can be done here? The two consultants have a few ideas. Below is a sample of them. 

  • For the federal government: The feds should issue "clear guidance" with a minimum of technical jargon about the degree of freedom schools have over different pots of cash (although DeVos would likely argue she's already at least tried to do this).This guidance should be written for all school personnel, not just those who administer federal programs, the authors say. They also say Congress could make "technical changes" to federal law to make things easier for schools, although even that relatively modest proposal could be very daunting in the current political environment. 
  • For states: State education agencies should partner with districts who encounter barriers to what they see as effective school spending. 
  • For districts: Districts could form coalitions to figure out effective ways to spend federal aid, and also look at federal rules for K-12 aid themselves instead of just accepting what states and other groups say about them. 
  • For advocacy groups: When the situation calls for it, Junge and Krvaric say, these groups should help districts get a lawyer in their corner and be willing to fight for how they want to spend money. 

Read the full report below:


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