With a new federal education law on the books, education leaders see a fresh opportunity to change how districts use money from Washington to identify schools’ needs and help meet them, including in the realm of academic improvement.
State officials who often see districts steer away from more creative uses of federal money because of habit and bureaucratic safety are trying to help superintendents and other local school employees take advantage of more possibilities for how to use those resources.
Efforts on that front are far from new, both from Washington and state education departments.
Guidance published by the U.S. Department of Education last year, for example, highlighted options for using Title I money earmarked for students from low-income backgrounds that districts often neglected, as well as common misconceptions, such as the notion that Title I dollars can only be used for instructional purposes.
But the enactment of the Every Student Succeeds Act has helped boost those efforts, said Melissa Junge, a lawyer at the Federal Education Group, a private consulting firm that advises states and districts on education funding and legal issues.
“That movement is growing faster under ESSA because ESSA is a lot clearer about the use-of-funds options. People are really thinking about how they can use this money more meaningfully,” Junge said.
ESSA lets states set aside up to 7 percent of their Title I funding (which totals about $15 billion in federal spending) for school improvement activities. But it comes with restrictions, and officials want schools to think about other Title I and federal aid in the context of improving school performance.
Real, Imagined Obstacles
When it comes to real and imagined obstacles to using federal funds more creatively, she added, the problems are diverse. “Those barriers can live in informal or formal state spending policies. They can be in the application and review process,” Junge said. “But what we’ve seen is that those barriers that lock these funds up live in different places in different states.”
Then there’s oversight. Because districts are also very conscious of audits, in many cases they will apply for and spend money through separate and well-worn silos “until they trust that the auditors know that what they’re doing is allowable,” said Sheara Krvaric, another Federal Education Group lawyer.
In contrast, three years before ESSA became law in December, Tennessee started putting in place a new template and support process to help districts better understand how to coordinate their resources for school improvement activities.
“What we’re telling superintendents is, you have the power to bring these people together around collective goals,” said Kathleen Airhart, a deputy superintendent at the state education department who’s overseen the change.
For the 2013-14 school year, Tennessee designed a new document for districts that allowed them to more easily consider federal Title I and special education funds (their Individuals with Disabilities Education Act money), alongside their plans for spending the state money they receive by formula. The next year, all federal dollars could be considered that way. Finally, for 2015-16, all state dollars were added to create a single, unified budget document for district leaders to use.
The state’s “Coordinated Spending Guide: Braiding and Blending Funds,” released after the shift was complete about a year ago, outlines five steps to make sure this “braiding and blending” works well, from identifying needs to avoiding program duplication.
Areas to Work On
Ten major improvement categories are highlighted, from prekindergarten programs and dropout prevention to improving curriculum and positive behavioral interventions and supports. Then, within each category, various districtwide and schoolwide initiatives are identified.
Finally, for each of these initiatives, the document shows district leaders if the proposed initiative can be supported by any or all of nine federal funding streams within the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (of which ESSA is the latest version) as well as four funding avenues within the IDEA and the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act.
The state also offers support to help local K-12 officials grasp, for example, certain federal program requirements for dollars, even whether they can be used on some programs.
A former district superintendent, Airhart said that in some cases, a district’s federal program officer or multiple such officers manage different pots of federal money that aren’t coordinated particularly well when it comes to singling out and addressing school needs.
“For a lot of states, that’s an ‘aha’ moment that has not been shared with districts in particular,” Airhart said. “I think that’s going to push the conversation in a lot of states.”
A District’s New Direction
On the 2014-15 state exams, the most recent with results available, 49 percent of Putnam County, Tenn., students scored “proficient” or “advanced” on the state reading exam in grades 3-8, the same as the statewide average.
To boost that number and others, Superintendent Jerry Boyd has decided (even though ESSA broadens the horizons for school improvement possibilities) to make improving a more traditional target for progress, literacy, a top priority in the 11,500-student district.
Boyd looks beyond annual state test scores and at both achievement gaps, as well as scores on an interim assessment, the Measurement of Academic Progress, to judge progress. He also examines 3rd grade reading levels in particular. Despite those various measures, until recently, Boyd felt his options to use federal money to address his district’s focus on literacy were limited.
“In the past few years, working with the department of education in Tennessee, they’re helping us lose some of those restrictions in some ways, those self-imposed restrictions,” Boyd said.
After three years of striving to better blend their various streams of financial aid to support district goals, Putnam County officials decided to extend to two schools the same option it got from the state: flexibility.
For the 2016-17 school year, Boyd said the district has selected its most economically disadvantaged elementary school and most economically disadvantaged middle school to participate in a pilot program. That pilot essentially tells principals: It’s up to you how best to spend Title I and Title II dollars, but you have to show you are making progress toward district academic goals. (Title II in federal law covers preparing, training, and recruiting teachers.)
Boyd emphasizes that those two schools don’t have carte blanche. He’s interested to see how the elementary school in the pilot, Jere Whitson Elementary in Cookeville, progresses on 3rd grade reading, for example. The school, at which 97 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, had just 35 percent of its students score at least proficient on the state reading exam in grades 3-8 for 2014-15.
But with the proper oversight and goals in mind, he decided to trust the staff members at individual schools.
“They’re still expected to follow the approved plan. But the decisionmaking is still in their hands,” Boyd said. “The district’s expectation is: Here are the bars, here are the targets the district, collaboratively, has set. It empowers the schools.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 2016 edition of Education Week as Loosening the Reins on Improvement Aid