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Education Opinion

From Defensive Spending to Effective Spending

By Melissa Junge & Sheara Krvaric — October 28, 2011 6 min read
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Note: Melissa Junge and Sheara Krvaric, lawyers at the Federal Education Group, will be guest posting this week.

In this final post, we propose strategies for tackling the compliance rules that interfere with good educational programming. As we explored this week, these rules shape the culture of education organizations because they create compliance fears that discourage effective spending. This makes little sense, especially in an era where every dollar matters.

The theme that connects the strategies below is engaging implementers. Policymakers sometimes assume a rule is working when they don’t hear examples about the damage it is doing in practice. This is why addressing fiscal and administrative compliance rules, while tedious, is so critical to education reform.

National Level

Federal policymakers could:

Identify the fiscal and administrative compliance rules that impact education. It is time to reexamine the compliance rules that get in the way of education services, and the first step in this process is to identify what those rules are. This would be a significant undertaking - ED’s Office of Inspector General once estimated that Title I alone contained 588 separate compliance requirements. While not all of those rules are fiscal or administrative in nature, many of them are. Unfortunately, these types of rules are often overlooked during policy debates or reauthorization discussions, so they remain in law even if they create undesired consequences.

Engage with implementers. State and local school superintendents, grant administrators, financial personnel, principals, teachers, and parents have important perspectives as to which federal compliance requirements cause the most trouble at the district, school, and classroom level.

Eliminate counterproductive compliance requirements. Eliminate requirements that interfere with sound educational practices and federal policy intentions, or are not worth enforcing because they provide little bang for the buck.

Eliminate duplicative requirements. Take planning requirements in ESEA. Schools and districts must draft a variety of plans including schoolwide plans, school improvement plans, professional development needs assessments, and parental involvement plans. Each has similar, but slightly different requirements. Completing required plans takes a great deal of time; more importantly, because there are so many plans to complete, it is common to have different people complete different plans. As a result, school district and school-level planning - which at its most effective is comprehensive in nature - can become fragmented so that few have a good overall picture of how all of the pieces fit together.

Reporting requirements are similarly challenging. States and districts have to submit numerous reports that ask for similar (if not the same) data.

Eliminating duplicative compliance requirements would not only reduce administrative burden, which could help direct more resources to classrooms, but could also drive more effective decision-making.

Federal agencies could:

Engage with those implementing federal programs before issuing final guidance. ED issues guidance about federal programs that, while not legally binding, shapes the way federal education programs are implemented (and audited). Posting guidance in draft first, and then soliciting feedback from stakeholders, would help ensure the concerns of program implementers are taken into account.

Ensure that guidance on compliance requirements is provided in a consistent manner. While the answers to questions about the law always depend on specific facts and circumstances, states and districts sometimes receive different advice about the same issues from different federal offices. This makes it very hard for states and districts to evaluate their options, which can contribute to the “lock down” mentality where defensive spending patterns continue because past spending is safe from a compliance perspective, even if it isn’t effective. Consistent advice about the parameters of federal rules could help states and districts move away from a culture driven by compliance to one driven by results.

Develop education specific guidance for states and school districts that explains how to comply with general grants management rules (like rules developed by OMB, such as time and effort). Information that explains how these rules work in the education context would be very helpful to those responsible for implementing federal programs. In addition, this guidance could include information for states and districts about less burdensome compliance options that are available under current law.

State Level

State education agencies could:

Re-examine state rules and processes that affect federal grants. Most large federal education programs are “state administered,” meaning the state is responsible for ensuring school districts comply with federal requirements, so states often impose rules, procedures, and requirements that are actually more stringent and/or burdensome than what is required by federal law. States could take a fresh look at how they interpret federal laws, as well the processes they require their school districts to follow, to ensure everything is aligned with the state’s strategic vision and no unnecessary obstacles are in the way.

Engage with ED to push available flexibilities. States play an important role in the administration of federal programs, and we are lucky to work with leaders who push for flexibilities that make a difference to students in the classroom. When auditors get things wrong, these states are not afraid to defend their districts. When a requirement is overly burdensome, these states work to find more flexible alternatives. This creates space for districts to succeed and helps to improve outcomes for students.

Local Level

School districts could:

Raise concerns to Congress, and federal and state agencies, about barriers to carrying out effective programs. Because fiscal and administrative requirements are not hot topics, the barriers they impose on districts are not widely discussed. When working with districts engaged in the very important and difficult work of improving schools, we see the amount of effort it can take to find a compliant way around these barriers. And while the districts we work with are varied, the barriers often look the same - this despite significant differences in geography, students, and philosophy. Hearing from implementers such as superintendents, grants administrators, principals, teachers, and parents about these barriers could play a vital role in breaking them down.

Ensure core operational systems - like planning, financial management, procurement, contract administration, inventory management, etc. are strong. While this may seem unrelated to federal grants, these core systems are vital to the proper stewardship of public funds (and in fact, most of those core systems must currently meet certain federal standards). If the flexibility movement that Congress and ED are signaling continues, school districts that have strong core systems will be best positioned to make the most of it.

If policymakers want to foster improved educational outcomes, all potential barriers to that goal need to be examined. Fiscal and administrative rules are just such barriers, and we hope these blog posts help to generate more conversation about these often overlooked but deeply influential requirements.

Finally, a big thanks to Rick for letting us camp out on his blog this week. It has been a great learning experience for us and we are deeply appreciative.

--Melissa Junge and Sheara Krvaric

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.