All Eyes Are on the Federal Education Budget—But Local Agency Plans May Matter More

All Eyes Are on the Federal Education Budget—But Local Agency Plans May Matter More

The most profound shifts driven by changes in education policy often go unnoticed and tend to lag behind the hype cycles and headlines about federal policy and politics. While the proposed cuts to the federal education budget have taken the spotlight, how districts craft the new local agency plans required by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) will more directly impact how schools operate and what support services and tools they will need. These plans are beginning to show a magnitude of change that has—so far—gone under the radar.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) has always required local agency plans as a condition of getting the federal funding. But the new plans required by ESSA are different. A brief comparison of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and ESSA illustrates the point. NCLB asked districts to invest in supplemental interventions for students who were at-risk of not achieving grade-level proficiency, according to the state’s math and reading exams. Program compliance was relatively straightforward: invest in supplemental math and reading interventions. Technology providers, in turn, tailored a generation of such products.

In contrast, ESSA broadens the work. The new law asks school leaders to not only consider grade-level proficiency, but encourages them to deploy funds to ensure that all students have access to a “well-rounded” education, that achievement gaps are closed, and that programs address the seemingly limitless causes of “academic failure” for at-risk students. Under ESSA, the local plans should be broader in scope, more ambitious than their predecessors, and have a direct relationship to effectiveness.

Rewriting local agency plans to be “in compliance” with these broader demands is no small effort. It will no longer be sufficient for program officers to simply describe what a school or district does to supplement its work (such as investing in math and reading). Rather, ESSA compels schools to invest in evidence-based programs and strategies that are effective and that advance the goals of equity and educational opportunity for at-risk students. This is meaningful because it merges “compliance” with careful program design and high-fidelity implementation.

This focus on high-fidelity implementation is encouraging districts to reorganize themselves. Programs and divisions cannot operate in isolation or just respond to the letter of the law, as many have in the past. Rather, each division will have to understand how it ensures that its strategies and investments are evidence-based, effective, and advance the goals of equity and educational opportunity for at-risk students.

This is not a superficial shift. It requires a reassessment of program management practices and habits, which is hard for any organization, let alone one with the size and personnel complexity of a school district. It is about the intersection of “design thinking,” program compliance, and data management. The pressure to redesign processes and systems to keep pace will raise many questions about how to do it and who is doing it well.

The School District of Palm Beach County in Florida is one example that will earn a lot of attention. Under the leadership of Superintendent Dr. Robert Avossa, the district is building its local plan upon a performance management framework that supports return-on-investment budgeting and strategic shedding of low-impact initiatives. Each program is scrutinized for evidence that it improves student learning outcomes or the conditions that contribute to student learning. If none exist, then the activity will not receive federal funds.

The district’s strategy comes down to a simple formula: identified program indicators multiplied by the number of students served, divided by the cost of the effort. Each program is washed through this formula to generate a rank order of the most effective programs in terms of impact and cost to ensure that their federal investments improve educational equity and opportunity. For example, pre-K services demonstrate a high rate of return on student outcomes, with relatively low costs. Accordingly, the Palm Beach County uses Title I funding to extend the state’s half-day pre-K program subsidy to a full-day program, removing participation barriers for working families who need the full-day coverage.

The fiscal stakes add a layer of urgency to the work. The President is proposing that Congress cut spending for the U.S. Department of Education and eliminate many programs, including $2.3 billion for professional development programs, $1.2 billion for after-school funds, and $250 million for Preschool Development Grants. At the same time, Secretary Betsy DeVos is reviewing all programs to explore which can be eliminated, reduced, consolidated, or privatized. Accounts deemed to be ineffective are in jeopardy. (Special education may be the lone exception). Those that survive would have to carry the burden. The administration believes, for example, that Title II (teacher and school leader professional development) and Title IV (the new ESSA block grant) are unnecessary since the activities may be carried out under Title I.

These proposed changes increase the pressure on districts to demonstrate how federal funds are used effectively. Failure to do so is a failure to rebut the administration’s argument that these funds are unnecessary.

The work in Palm Beach County is indicative of what’s ahead for thousands of districts across the nation drafting new local agency plan for ESSA. They are realizing that the meaning of “compliance” is different than it was under NCLB, and that they have to be better at showing lawmakers and the public how they use the funding to achieve their objectives. This is a change-moment and strategic school leaders like Dr. Robert Avossa are going to make the most of it. These are the leaders, conversations, and practices to watch and support in the coming year.

David DeSchryver (@ddeschryver) is Senior Vice President and Co-Director of Research at Whiteboard Advisors. Dr. Dana Z. Godek (@DanaGodek) is the Director of Federal & State Programs at the School District of Palm Beach County.

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