One of the major goals of the Every Student Succeeds Act is to give states and districts significantly more say in how they spend their federal dollars. And as a part of that effort, Congress collapsed a number of small federal programs aimed at health, safety, the arts, technology, and other areas into a broad-based block grant called the Student Support and Academic Enrichment grant program, or Title IV of ESSA.
The U.S. Department of Education recently put out guidance on how those funds can be spent, even as advocacy groups are sweating over how much of the $1.5 billion recommended in the law will actually materialize.
ESSA lays out clear ground rules for the money. The law requires districts that get more than $30,000 to spend 20 percent of their money on an activity that helps students become more well-rounded, and another 20 percent on something that contributes to student health and safety.
Even though districts can spend their money on technology, no more than 15 percent can go to technology infrastructure, such as laptops. Districts that get less than $30,000 don’t need to meet those requirements, according to the guidance.
The department’s overall message in the guidance is that a “well-rounded education” isn’t just about music and the arts, although those are important. “Well-rounded” can include everything from foreign-language courses and civics education to Advanced Placement and college and career counseling. And districts can partner with postsecondary institutions on those programs.
Beyond that, the guidance seeks to flesh out key points about the block grant. For example, it makes clear that even though most of the money—95 percent—must go to districts, the state will have to devise districts’ applications for the funds. States can use that opportunity to influence how districts spend their money, the guidance says.
States also can offer matching grants to districts that plan to use the money for a particular purpose, such as improving school climate or putting in place new, more rigorous classes. And they can encourage districts to apply as a group focused on a single activity, which might help the funds go further.
The guidance also sketches out what should happen in cases in which a district wants to spend its money on a program that falls into both the well-rounded and the health and safety categories.
What’s more, the guidance makes it clear that districts don’t have to give each of their schools a piece of the Title IV funding. They can concentrate just on schools that show the greatest need for the funds.
But it appears that Title IV may get a lot less money than the law allows.
ESSA recommended $1.5 billion for the combined block-grant program, but the individual programs that make up Title IV only added up to about $280 million in funding this school year.
The Obama administration asked for $500 million for the program, and a Senate panel wants $300 million for it. A House panel is seeking $1 billion, but also looking to eliminate a number of programs that remain on the books.
The budget likely won’t be finalized until after the election, so it’s anyone’s guess at this point what spending on the block grant ultimately will be.
U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. said on an Oct. 21 conference call with reporters that the new block-grant program can help states and districts move beyond what many perceived as a narrow focus on reading and math under the previous version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act.
Noelle Ellerson, the associate executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said there’s a lot of interest from local leaders in a flexible pot of federal funding that they can use to make sure students get a well-rounded education. But she worries that Congress won’t provide nearly enough for the program to fulfill its promise.
“So much of the policy is right,” she said. But without the funding, “you’re cutting off your nose to spite your face.”
In fact, if the program is funded at as little as $300 million, many districts will get only $7,000 or $8,000 to spend, said Jon Bernstein, the president of Bernstein Strategy Group, a lobbying organization in Washington that represents a number of organizations interested in education.
“You can’t do much with that,” he said.
King said the department is working with Congress on appropriations. He’s hoping, he said, that districts will be able to use some of their state and other federal funds to supplement programs they decide to spend their Title IV dollars on.
But he acknowledged that, “certainly, resources are going to be a challenge here because the areas covered by Title IV are so expansive.”
He added that the department’s proposed, and highly controversial, regulations on a spending provision in ESSA known as supplement-not-supplant could help schools serving low-income students get access to their fair share of funding. That, he said, would allow them to make the most of the block grant.
A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2016 edition of Education Week as Guidance, Hurdles for ESSA’s ‘Well-Rounded Education’ Grant