Special Report
Education Funding

Districts Must Walk a Fine Line to Fund RTI Programs

By Sarah D. Sparks — February 28, 2011 4 min read
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As response to intervention becomes more popular, education leaders find the framework’s fluidity and broad application at times can be an awkward fit for some of the federal programs often used to pay for it.

The U.S. Department of Education has tried to encourage districts to pool federal formula grants for students in poverty, those in special education, English-language learners, and others with state and local money to support schoolwide RTI systems, but Melissa Junge, a lawyer with the Washington-based law firm Federal Education Group, said few districts manage to consolidate federal and local money fully. RTI’s individual student-focused philosophy often clashes with the rigid, decades-old school infrastructure of services provided based on students’ grant eligibility.

“While not impossible, using federal grant funds to support a comprehensive approach such as RTI can be very challenging,” Ms. Junge said.

That’s a problem because, while schools get considerable spending flexibility if they can completely consolidate all federal, state, and local money in a “schoolwide” program, the fiscal requirements of each grant can cause problems if schools do not unify programs and funding properly.

Such restrictions are “a huge barrier” to implementing RTI, according to Tessie Rose Bailey, a research analyst for the National Center on Response to Intervention at the Washington-based American Institutes for Research, “and most administrators just don’t have the knowledge or training to use their funds appropriately, and so they just don’t do anything with federal funds.”

Under most circumstances, a district cannot use federal money to pay for something already mandated by state or local law; such use of federal grants runs counter to the requirement that aid such as Title I for disadvantaged students supplement, rather than supplant, local support for education.

Money under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act can be used to support any services based on a child’s individualized education program. But only the 15 percent available for early-intervention services for students at academic risk can be used for students who have not been diagnosed with a disability, and according to federal rules, that money must be tracked even in a schoolwide Title I school–a school that has been given permission to pool federal funds to serve all children because of a high concentration of poor students.

Individual grants, such as Title III for English-language learners, also have restrictions on how they can be spent in connection with other grants.

Funding RTI

A majority of districts surveyed last year relied on local funds and federal Title I programs to support RTI.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCES: K-12 Soluti ons; American Associati on of School Administrators

“There is a disconnect between the objectives of RTI and the legal requirements that apply to federal grants,” Ms. Junge said. “The focus of a good RTI program is to provide a successful intervention, but not necessarily a label, to get a student on track,” while federal grants aim to serve specific groups of students.

So far, the most recent federal financial guidance on RTI is a 2008 annotated presentation. According to the slides, a school that does not fully implement a schoolwide Title I program can still use federal money to implement RTI, but only in specific interventions and tiers.

Erin Gross, an RTI coordinator for the Iberville Parish public schools in Louisiana, said all of her district’s 10 schools have consolidated schoolwide programs, but administrators still struggle to meet the requirements of individual grants properly.

A few years ago, it was easy to incorporate reading assessments and interventions into the district’s RTI framework to meet the goals of the federal Reading First program or the idea’s early-intervention-services grants Ms. Gross said, but as the economy has languished, the district has had to be ever more cautious.

“We’re reorganizing a lot of the money now,” Ms. Gross said. With Reading First and other grants ended, she said, the district is tweaking the RTI program so that it meets the requirements of its new Teacher Incentive Fund grant—a pot of money generally used for teacher merit-pay projects.

“A lot of [the funding streams are] changing,” Ms. Gross said, “If it ever all dries up, I don’t know what we’d do, because we don’t have the money to pay both teachers and interventionists.”

Good Intentions

Good state or local intentions compound federal compliance problems. For example, about a dozen states require schools to use an RTI process to help determine a student’s eligibility for special education services, and Mississippi mandated it as an instructional model for all students.

No one is “really comfortable” with this topic, Ms. Bailey said. “You might think you’re on the right track, and then it turns around and bites you.”

Louisiana is one state trying not to get bitten. State educators developed draft guidance in 2009 on how districts should implement RTI, but they have not yet made it final. That step might be construed as a mandate that could violate supplanting restrictions. Instead, schools use the “draft” guidance to frame their thinking about RTI implementation, according to state RTI coordinator Diana Jones.“It’s not mandated at the state [level] yet, but it’s our expectation that everyone will universally screen, identify who is at grade level and below grade level, and develop ways to help them.”

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