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Education Opinion

Implementation Matters

By Melissa Junge & Sheara Krvaric — October 27, 2011 4 min read
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Note: Melissa Junge and Sheara Krvaric, lawyers at the Federal Education Group, will be guest posting this week.

Education policies cannot be successful if school districts are required to implement those policies in ineffective ways. While education policymakers passionately discuss the merits or flaws of big picture policy ideas, once policies actually make it into law few look back to see how the policies work in day-to-day practice. This is unfortunate, because overly burdensome or complicated administrative requirements can trip up policy goals.

To illustrate this point, consider the “equitable services” requirement. This requirement, which has existed since federal education programs began in the 1960s, requires public school systems to provide services to eligible private school students with federal funds. We recognize there are larger public policy issues surrounding this requirement, which we will not examine here; instead we want to look at how the policy is implemented. We come to this issue having represented both “sides” - the public school systems tasked with administering equitable services, and the private schools that are supposed to receive the services. In our experience, neither side is happy.

For context, most large federal education programs, including Title I, Title II, and IDEA, contain an equitable services requirement which mandates that school districts set aside some of their federal grant funds to provide services to eligible private school students, teachers, and/or parents. School districts are also required to:

• Consult with private school officials on a variety of topics, including what kinds of services would be helpful for private school students;
• Determine what services the private school students will receive after the consultation;
• Control the federal grant funds and property purchased on behalf of private schools; and
• Ensure the services are actually delivered to private school students, teachers, and parents.

These implementation rules require both districts and private schools to invest substantial resources in administering equitable services, rather than on the services themselves.

The system can also feel illogical for both sides, and can foster a more contentious relationship between public schools systems and private schools than would otherwise exist. For example, when a public school district purchases an item to be used by students in a private school:

• The item must remain the district’s property;
• Be a part of the district’s inventory management system; and
• The district is responsible for monitoring how the private school uses the item to ensure it is only used by eligible students.

From the district perspective, this creates serious risks. If the private school misuses the item, then the district is on the hook for any audit or monitoring finding. From the private school perspective, district monitoring can feel like micromanagement of the private school’s educational program.

And there is more that doesn’t make sense administratively. Different federal education programs have different equitable services requirements, for example:

• In some cases federal law provides a formula for how much money should be set aside, while in others the district must consult with private schools to figure out how the money should be divided between public and private school students.
• In some cases districts must serve private school students who live in the district regardless of where they attend school, while in other cases districts must serve private school students who attend private schools located in the district regardless of where they live.

From the school district perspective, this means a district cannot develop one set of operating procedures that applies to all of the equitable services it delivers. Instead, the district must administer each program separately. As a result, many school districts, especially large urban districts, have personnel dedicated solely to carrying out equitable services requirements.

From the private school perspective, this means school officials must learn how to navigate a complex bureaucracy to get services for their students. And, because federal rules vary so dramatically from program to program, it can be hard for private school officials to know precisely what their students are entitled to receive under each program.

Noncompliance with equitable services requirements is a real issue for public school systems; in fact, it is one of the most common findings raised by U.S. Department of Education monitors. (For a breakdown of findings see these spreadsheets.) Because of this compliance pressure, many districts feel they are forced to spend a disproportionate amount of time worrying about the needs of private school students. On the other side, private school officials can become so frustrated with the way services are (or are not delivered) they resort to administrative litigation. This makes equitable services one of the few K-12 federal education issues outside of special education that is actually litigated.

All of this is an example of the importance of sensible administrative rules because such rules powerfully influence how policies are implemented. While equitable services is one example, similar administrative disconnects exist throughout federal education programs. Unfortunately, it is rare that these types of implementation struggles are discussed. Because overlooked administrative requirements can impede the delivery of services to students, we hope they become a more prominent part of the education conversation.

-- 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.