What's in ESSA's Big Flexible-Spending Pot

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The Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants—better known as Title IV of the Every Student Succeeds Act—is one of the most flexible federal programs around. And it just got a huge increase, from $400 million in the 2017-18 school year to $1.1 billion for the 2018-19 school year. The program is closely watched by advocates and district officials alike, in part because the dollars can cover such a wide array of needs—from school safety training to drama clubs to science programs to suicide prevention.

Here's a look at how the program works and how districts might spend that considerable increase:


What is Title IV of ESSA and why did Congress create it?

Title IV, Part A of ESSA, or the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants, was intended to give district leaders more flexibility when it comes to federal funding. The program was created by collapsing a bunch of smaller programs aimed at physical education, arts education, math and science instruction, counseling, Advance Placement course fees, and school safety. Congress authorized up to $1.6 billion for the program in its first year. That would have made it the third-largest program in ESSA. But lawmakers only provided $400 million for federal fiscal year 2017, which generally covers the 2017-18 school year. This spring, in the fiscal year 2018 spending bill, Title IV got a boost of $700 million, bringing it to $1.1 billion.

What can the money be used for?

The money flows to districts from state education officials through a formula. Districts have broad discretion to use the aid for a wide range of programs aimed at making students safer and healthier, more well-rounded, or to enhance the role of technology in learning. Activities aimed at improving student health and safety include things like promoting parent and community involvement, establishing or improving dropout prevention programs, and putting in place or bolstering health and nutrition programs, or programs to combat the opioid crisis. Well-rounded activities can include initiatives to bolster foreign-language courses, college counseling, dual enrollment, musical theater, and computer science. Districts can also use the money for technology, including blended learning and building technological capacity.

Districts that receive at least $30,000 must spend 20 percent of their funding on those activities that help students be more well-rounded, and 20 percent on something that bolsters student health and safety. Districts can't spend more than 15 percent of their funding on technology infrastructure.

Every district is supposed to receive at least $10,000. Districts can opt to combine their money and use it as a consortium. And districts can opt to transfer as much of their Title IV funding as they want to other ESSA programs, including Title I grants for disadvantaged students, or Title II, which covers teacher training and salaries. Given that there was so little funding in the first year of the program, some districts decided to direct the money to Title II. That included the entire state of Hawaii, which is made up of just one school district.

How has the program worked in the past?

There are no hard-and-fast data available yet on how districts used the money in the first year. But a forthcoming survey, spearheaded by the National Association of Federal Education Program Administrators, found some "interesting trends," said David DeSchryver, a senior vice president and director of research at Whiteboard Advisors, a consulting organization, who helped to conduct the survey.

For instance, DeSchryver said, districts opted to spend their money on programs that emphasized positive behavioral interventions and supports, or PBIS, which seek to create a common set of behavioral expectations for schools. Districts also directed funds to develop safe and supportive learning environments. In the "whole child" category, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and social and emotional learning were popular. Districts that spent their money on technology tended to opt for educator professional development. And in general, early survey results show that many districts opted not to transfer the money to other titles of the law, DeSchryver said.

Because there was so little money available in the first year of the program, states were given the option of distributing the money through a competition, rather than by formula. At least seven states opted to do this, according to an Education Week survey conducted last summer.

Now that the program is receiving a lot more money at the federal level, all states are expected to distribute the funds through a formula.

Some states were also slow to distribute the money in the program's first year. About half of states had not allocated the grants by January of this year, according to the Title IV-A Coalition, a group of more than 50 organizations that advocates for the program. And California still has not distributed its funds from the first year of the program, and may combine them with the second year of funding.

Now that there's more money available, how might the program change?

Now that Title IV has received a $700 million boost at the federal level, more districts are likely to receive significantly more money. For example, in the program's first year, just 25 districts got grants of $1 million or more. That number will tick up to an estimated 125 districts, according to an analysis of federal data by the Title IV-A Coalition. An estimated 1,000 more districts will receive grants of at least $100,000, up from about 460 in the program's first year. About 2,800 districts will get grants of at least $30,000, up from just over 1,100 in the program's first year.

It's unclear at this point what districts will spend this extra cash on. But Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director of policy and advocacy for AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said that she's hearing a lot of interest in school safety, given the recent spate of school shootings. "There's been a big burst around mental health supports, school resource officers, bullying prevention, school climate," Ellerson Ng said.

Many districts though, may not get larger grants—about 9,000 will still see grants of less than $30,000. That's down from nearly 12,000 last year, but it's still the majority.

For instance, the Downington Area school district outside Philadelphia got about $10,000 last year, which it directed to teacher professional development through Title II. And even with the big federal increase, Superintendent Emilie Lonardi isn't expecting a windfall for her own district. "For us, it's really not going to change appreciably," Lonardi said. She expects that she may get about $10,000 again, and could decide to continue to direct the funding to teacher training.

What are the program's prospects going forward?

The program enjoys bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, but the Trump administration has twice sought to eliminate all funding for it. Lawmakers were poised to at least keep the program going despite the administration's opposition in fiscal year 2018. But the program, which can target funding toward school safety activities among its many flexible uses, may have gotten a big increase, in part because the final spending bill was released just days after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which left 17 dead.

"I think there is an appetite to keep this program well-funded so that we can have a couple years of good data about how the program helps schools and students," said Ally Bernstein, the executive director of the Title IV-A Coalition.

DeSchryver urged districts to let policymakers—and the public—know how the money has helped them. "It's important for districts to tell a story of how they use these funds in order to make the case for the continuation of these funds," he said.

Vol. 37, Issue 34, Page 27

Published in Print: June 6, 2018, as What's in ESSA's Big Flexible-Spending Pot
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