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Districts Waiting for Guidance on 'Supplement, Not Supplant'

The U.S. Department of Education and state education authorities are churning toward the introduction of new school accountability plans in the 2018-19 school year under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). But one key piece of work remains stalled out: clarifying how states and districts can comply with the long-standing federal requirement that federal Title I funds for disadvantaged students should supplement, not supplant state and local funds.

Just days before U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos took the helm of the Education Department, her predecessor withdrew proposed language on ESSA’s changes to the “supplement, not supplant” provision. Introduced in August 2016, the language had delighted civil rights advocates keen to improve equity in the distribution of state and local funds among schools within districts. But its new, onerous compliance regime raised hackles among state chiefs, district officials, and Congressional Republicans. So then-Secretary John King pulled the guidance.

Since then, the only communication from the department on the topic has been a December 2017 memorandum from Patrick Rooney, deputy director of the Office of State Support. The memo gave states a few extra months—until the 2018-19 school year—to begin enforcing new supplement-not-supplant standards, but provided no meaningful guidance on how the department expected states to comply with the new rules. The department’s inaction is both puzzling and troubling.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, states receiving Title I grants had to demonstrate that each Title I dollar was spent on a good or service that wouldn’t have been purchased in the absence of grant funds. Under ESSA, that burden is supposed to vanish. Districts must now show that the way they allocate state and local funds to schools is “Title I neutral,” that they don’t give Title I schools systematically fewer resources than others and allow federal Title I dollars to make up the difference.

What districts need from the Education Department is a framework for describing their methodology for allocating resources to schools, and a sense of what will happen to them if their approaches don’t comply. Rather than accounting for how they spend federal dollars, districts will now focus on how they allocate state and local resources.

A helpful framework would answer a few methodological questions. For instance, is it OK for districts to describe allocating resources to schools purely in terms of staffing, or FTEs, of various types? This question matters because school district budgets tend to hinge on FTEs, a short-hand for a bundling of various labor costs, especially salary and benefits.

Thus, districts need to know whether such calculations pass muster. The Council of Chief State School Officers and others have published recommendations but don't know whether their approaches would meet federal expectations.

Furthermore, it needs to be clear that the supplement, not supplant policy is no guarantee that Title I schools will receive more funding from state and local sources than other schools.

Consider two schools: one set in a relatively affluent neighborhood and one in a neighborhood of concentrated poverty. The first has attracted a number of experienced teachers over the years, making for a higher salary base. The Title l school has higher teacher churn and a number of novices, hence a lower salary total. That’s an equity problem, one allowed by a loophole in another federal fiscal requirement ("comparability") that Congress preserved with ESSA. But it's not a supplanting problem.

The Obama administration’s abandoned proposal would have forced the district to spend about as much state and local money on the Title I school as on the more affluent school, then layer federal dollars on top of that. The proposal was tantamount to closing the loophole in the comparability requirement. Critics argued it would have required spending cuts at some schools or efforts to force senior teachers to transfer.

The clock ran out on that idea more than a year ago. It’s time for the Education Department to give districts an alternative.