It’s been five years since the latest version of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act—the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA—was reauthorized by Congress. ESSA is notable for its opportunities to innovate, which was lacking in its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

ESSA includes a federal block grant that you may not be taking advantage of for your district and students. To understand the opportunities of the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants (SSAE), or Title IV-A, the context and intent of ESSA play a role.

This major piece of federal legislation was the first in several years to be signed into law with bipartisan support. This speaks both to the thoughtfulness of education policy leaders and the increased support for technology and innovation in schools.

While promising when it passed in 2001, NCLB devolved into an overemphasis on testing and the stifling of innovation. The strict accountability and assessment provisions left little room for any sort of original delivery of curriculum, let alone encouraging of any uses of technology in the classroom. However, the law did include a program called Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT).

It’s important to understand EETT and the role it played when the language for SSAE developed. According to the U.S. Department of Education, EETT was a program to “improve student achievement through the use of technology in elementary and secondary schools.” Additional goals included establishing innovative, research-based instructional methods.

Funding for this program stalled five years before ESSA was reauthorized. The loss of funding energized advocates to find a place for innovation and opportunity within the new law. They saw the reauthorization of ESSA as their chance to get federal funding back into the hands of educators for this goal, and they fought hard.

ESSA’s passage was no easy feat. It took countless hearings, meetings, and late nights for staffers to craft a bill that would garner support from both sides. Title IV-A of ESSA brought together a diverse group of supporters for the purpose of flexibility and innovation, major themes of the bill.

Title IV-A

Title IV-A has three buckets. They include support for the effective use of technology, a well-rounded education, and safe and healthy students. The beauty of these three buckets is there is a lot of overlap. ESSA allows for more fluid funding, so districts can create a plan that encompasses all three buckets in a comprehensive way.

The funds have a few strings attached. The authors of ESSA didn’t want any of these areas to be overlooked, so they put requirements on any district that receives over $30,000 from Title IV-A. Any district that receives that threshold or higher must conduct a comprehensive needs assessment on the three areas provided for in Title IV-A. The funds must be assigned as follows:

  • At least 20 percent of funds for activities to support well-rounded educational opportunities; 
  • At least 20 percent of funds for activities to support safe and healthy students; and
  • A portion of funds for activities to support effective use of technology.

Well-rounded education

According to guidance released by the U.S. Department of Education, “the purpose of a well-rounded education is to provide an enriched curriculum and education experiences to all students.” Districts can do this in several ways, and the authors of ESSA worked to ensure that options within this section weren’t limiting, but they also suggested ways to meet this section of the law. Activities mentioned by the Department of Education include:

  • Improving access to foreign language instruction, arts, and music education.
  • Supporting college and career counseling, including providing information on opportunities for financial aid.
  • Providing programming to improve instruction and student engagement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), including computer science, and increasing access to these subjects for underrepresented groups.
  • Promoting access to accelerated learning opportunities including Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, dual or concurrent enrollment programs, and early college high schools.
  • Strengthening instruction in American history, civics, economics, geography, government education, and environmental education.

Again, this list is to spur ideas and think through what is needed for every district individually.

Supporting safe and healthy students

The second purpose of the SSAE program is to improve school conditions for student learning. Violence, mental health issues, and cyber issues have increased in the past decade. Congress understood this and wanted to ensure dedicated funding to address these issues. Department of Education funding examples include:

  • Promoting community and parent involvement in schools.
  • Providing school-based mental health services and counseling.
  • Promoting supportive school climates to reduce the use of exclusionary discipline and promoting supportive school discipline.
  • Establishing or improving dropout prevention.
  • Supporting re-entry programs and transition services for justice-involved youth.
  • Implementing programs that support a healthy, active lifestyle (nutritional and physical education).
  • Implementing systems and practices to prevent bullying and harassment.
  • Developing relationship building skills to help improve safety through the recognition and prevention of coercion, violence, or abuse.
  • Establishing community partnerships.

Effective use of technology

This portion of Title IV-A is the biggest nod to EETT. The Department of Education again provided a list of possible applications for this funding:

  • Supporting high-quality professional development for educators, school leaders, and administrators to personalize learning and improve academic achievement.
  • Building technological capacity and infrastructure.
  • Carrying out innovative blended learning projects.
  • Providing students in rural, remote, and underserved areas with the resources to benefit from high-quality digital learning opportunities.
  • Delivering specialized or rigorous academic courses and curricula using technology, including digital learning technologies and assistive technology.

This portion of Title IV-A is the most complex, but also affords the most opportunities for innovation. Technology touches everything we do, which means even though there are certain spending requirements on this section, there is room to intertwine with supporting a well-rounded education and supporting activities for safe and healthy students. The Department of Education created a Title IV-A technical assistance center (https://safesupportivelearning.ed.gov/ESSA-TitleIVPartA-SSAE) that districts can contact for questions of overlapping funds while remaining in compliance.

Title IV-A Funding

Title IV-A is the funding behind the flexibility and innovation theme. ESSA uses the phrase “it is allowed” over and over again, but not “it is required.” It is scary for districts to innovate and try new strategies, as their every move is made in the public eye and on the public dollar. Providing funds in Title IV-A is a way to encourage districts to take advantage of the new opportunities now allowed under the law. Federal policy has two important words for funding: appropriation and authorization.

  • Authorized funding: A statutory provision that obligates funding for a program or agency. An authorization may be valid for one year, a fixed number of years, or an indefinite period. An authorization may be for a definite amount of money or for “such sums as may be necessary.”
  • Appropriation: The provision of funds, through an annual appropriations act or a permanent law, for federal agencies to make payments out of the Treasury for specified purposes.

ESSA is authorized for $1.6 billion through 2021; however, the bill has not been appropriated for that amount since inception. Advocates were disappointed with the first round of appropriations coming in at only $400 million. This amount left districts with hardly any funding for many plans they had made.

The second round of funding came shortly after tragedy struck in Florida at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and because Title IV-A houses the support of safe and healthy schools, the SSAE block grant had a major boost in funding, being appropriated at $1.1 billion—the closest to the authorized amount to date.

Opportunities and challenges

The SSAE provides districts a great deal of opportunities with the dedicated funding streams. In fact, it is the intention of Congress that ESSA encourages leveraging partnerships in new ways. The guidance for Title IV-A states that “SEAs, LEAs, and schools may partner with organizations such as nonprofits, institutions of higher education, museums, and community organizations to offer programs and services to students. In addition, state and local leaders should consider how other federal, state, and local funds may be leveraged to support a holistic approach to a well-rounded education.”

Somewhere along the way, education became walled-off from the community in many districts. Title IV-A gives the flexibility back to rejoin the community and think of new ways (or even reform back to older ways) of allowing students to learn from experts in their own neighborhoods. Title IV-A speaks to the shift in thinking for higher education, and what success even looks like after graduation.

Within the flexibility and dedicated funding of Title IV-A, there are many opportunities to create and to address the universal constructs, or “soft skills.” The idea is to think holistically before spending.

This is an opportunity to ask questions such as “How can technology dollars help with safe and healthy schools?” “How can safe and healthy school dollars help with providing a well-rounded education?” and “How can a well-rounded education be supported by technology dollars?”

These questions will help your district to leverage opportunities and take on challenges at the same time. This is Title IV-A’s purpose. It is critical the opportunity is not wasted. Congress must see how this helps districts to ensure the longevity of this block grant.

Susan Gentz (sgentz@bsgstrategy.com) is the founder of BSG Strategies in Des Moines, Iowa.

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