Every Student Succeeds Act

Critics Pan Proposed ESSA Spending Rules

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 15, 2016 5 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education’s proposed rules for how states and districts spend federal money for disadvantaged students under the Every Student Succeeds Act is under siege both by members of Congress and by state schools superintendents, who are pitching their own spending approach under the new law.

The core of the debate continues to be draft regulations covering the technical—but important—issue known as “supplement not supplant,” which seeks to assure that state and local education agencies don’t use federal Title I aid to displace their own spending responsibilities for underprivileged students.

Latest Flare-Up

In the most recent flare-up, more than two dozen Republican members put U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. on notice that the department should rescind its proposed spending rules for ESSA because, in their view, the proposals violate the spirit of the law.

“Many states have examined and are continuing to examine whether their own state and local funds are being allocated equitably to Title I and non-Title I schools,” states the Nov. 4 letter from 25 members of the House and Senate. “However, [supplement-not-supplant] has never required, nor is it intended to require, equity or fairness in the allocation of state and local education dollars.”

Their concerns mirror those outlined in an earlier letter to President Barack Obama from a bipartisan group of 10 senators, who criticized both the proposed spending rules and the department’s draft regulations on accountability, saying neither complies with the “plain language” of the law. And they ask for Obama’s help in reining in the department.

“Most Americans are grateful for the law,that Congress, working with you, enacted,” they wrote in the Sept. 30 letter. “We urge you to make certain that the Department of Education regulations stay within the statutory text.”

Notably, while the signatories include Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee and an ESSA architect, they don’t include Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the committee and another ESSA architect.

And it’s clear that Murray disagrees with the premise of the letter. “These proposed regulations are within the spirit of ESSA and the congressional intent that we agreed to around that balanced approach,” she said in a statement. “I am encouraged to see the department continuing to gather feedback from stakeholders, including teachers, principals, superintendents, and civil rights groups, as it works to implement the law.”

Most Americans are grateful for the law that Congress, working with you, enacted. We urge you to make certain that the Department of Education regulations stay within the statutory intent."

For its part, the Education Department has said that its proposed regulations are well within ESSA’s parameters and would help strengthen so-called “guardrails” in the law to protect historically overlooked groups of students.

‘Unlawful, Unnecessary’

In the more recent letter, submitted as a comment as part of the formal rulemaking process, a broader group that includes both Alexander and Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, says the spending proposal runs counter to the intent of Congress and “includes additional requirements on [districts] that are unlawful, unnecessary, and could result in harmful consequences to [districts], schools, teachers, and students.”

The supplement-not-supplant part of the law requires districts to show that they are spending federal dollars in addition to, and not in place of, state and local spending on schools. The Education Department’s draft regulations for that requirement would give districts several options for showing they’re in compliance, including one that requires close-to-equalized spending between Title I schools that enroll large shares of students from low-income households and non-Title I schools.

Department officials as well as civil rights groups say the proposal would ensure more resources for disadvantaged students and take decisive action against districts that have been improperly depriving those students of badly needed money.

But opponents argue that it would disrupt how districts draw up their budgets and distribute people and resources. And they also say that, in contrast to the department’s heavy-handed approach, ESSA itself actually creates more flexibility for districts on the issue by no longer requiring them to itemize expenses in order to show that federal money is truly supplementing their budgets.

Alternative Proposal

The Council of Chief State School Officers, meanwhile, has proposed its own plan that differs in a few key respects from the Education Department’s proposed rules.

Under its plan, also submitted as a formal public comment to the department, districts would not have to choose from among four options for distributing state and local school aid, as the department’s proposed regulations would require. In fact, there’s no menu of possible methodologies in the state chiefs’ proposal. The CCSSO also says that state and local money should be distributed to schools without taking their Title I status into account.

The CCSSO plan would also require districts to publish how they distributed state and local money, show they’re actually distributing it that way, and consider their funding methods’ impact on schools undergoing comprehensive turnarounds.

The state chiefs’ group says it is committed to “equitable education opportunities for every child, no matter their race, ethnicity, income level, or where they attend school.” But the CCSSO also says of the Education Department’s proposal: “Setting up a compliance system where every educational decision that touches spending must be vetted through a central-district office is more than just a paperwork burden; it takes decisionmaking away from the people closest to students.”

On a conference call with reporters, Wisconsin schools Superintendent Tony Evers highlighted how the CCSSO’s proposal would put a spotlight on resource inequities at low-performing schools in particular.

“Equity is enhanced by transparency,” Evers said, adding that clear progress was made on the issue during contentious negotiations over the supplemental-money rule.

By contrast, the proposed department rules could upend certain changes to district operations like those made in Clark County schools in Nevada, said Steve Canavero, that state’s superintendent.

Department officials have maintained that some districts are improperly and unfairly shortchanging Title I schools, and that its supplemental-money proposal would result in up to $2 billion in additional state and local aid for those students.

Approximately 600 comments have been submitted to the department regarding its August ESSA spending proposal. The comment period closed Nov. 7.

A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2016 edition of Education Week as Proposed ESSA Spending Rules Encounter Stiff Resistance

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