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Florida Offers Lessons on Supplement Not Supplant

• Matthew Joseph

Children raising hands


Title I of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) contains a provision called the “supplement not supplant” requirement to ensure Title I funds add to, enhance, expand or extend the programs and services offered with state and local funds. It addresses the concern that states or districts would replace local and state spending with federal funds. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, many schools had to itemize the cost of services and programs to show that Title I aid was providing supplemental services. In practice, this has created a number of operational challenges (see here, here and here).

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), recently approved by Congress and signed by the President to reauthorize ESEA, changed the way supplement not supplant is handled. Schools do not have to identify individual costs; they only have to demonstrate that the federal funding is in addition to state and local spending, without having to show the purpose behind the funds.

At the Foundation for Excellence in Education, we share the U.S. Department of Education’s strong commitment to equity and applaud the intent of its draft supplement not supplant regulations for ESSA. Too many high-poverty schools have fewer resources than schools with wealthier students. However, ExcelinEd works closely with states and districts and sees how some well-intentioned federal policies could have harmful consequences.

Under the draft regulations presented to negotiators, the Department has proposed that, for each district, spending in each Title I school must be equal or greater than the average amount spent per pupil in non-Title I schools. We appreciate the desire of the Department to push states and districts to equalize funding across schools. Yet, there could be reasonable decisions districts could make that would violate the Department’s proposed requirement. A larger Title I school may have lower per pupil spending, as administration and overhead are divided across more students. Another Title I school may by chance have fewer disabled students requiring additional services. And yet another Title I school may have fewer teachers need or decide to select family benefits that cost more.

Florida’s student funding model aims to achieve equitable state and local funding while taking into consideration these on-the-ground realities. The state provides extra funds to districts based on particular student characteristics, like grade level and English language learner status. Districts have considerable freedom to distribute these funds among schools, but what they cannot do is simply spend the money on other students. Under the Equity in School-Level Funding Act, districts need to allocate to schools an average of 90 percent of the state funds generated by the schools based on their student characteristics, with each school receiving at least 80 percent.

Adopting a similar, more flexible approach at the federal level could also eliminate the need for another part of the Department’s draft regulations requiring that state and local funds be “sufficient” to provide a “basic educational program.” This requirement might restrict Title I funds to marginal services instead of the overall instructional programs, as explicitly intended by ESSA. Florida has a comprehensive K-3 reading policy, which includes diagnostics, strong core reading programs, early interventions and later interventions. This policy has contributed to strong academic gains, and numerous other states have adopted it.

By focusing on district averages, and providing districts with a reasonable margin, the Department can address equity concerns without imposing unnecessary and potentially harmful restrictions on school districts.

April 15, 2016 Update: In just-released revisions to its draft regulations, the Department has laudably recognized that state and local spending in non-Title I schools could exceed that in Title I schools because of “special circumstances related to a particular school’s population.” However, its solutions are vague, instead of the clear and specific approach used in states like Florida. The new draft regulations say an LEA may “rebut” a violation without saying how much deviation is permissible. They also mention only one cause, when there are others that would justifiably lower spending in Title I schools. Finally, the new draft creates a loophole by saying that violations are OK if the LEA was in compliance during any of the three preceding school years. The Florida approach—comparing averages and allowing a specific margin of error—is a proven approach that would provide clearer guidance to states and districts.

It is important to remember that the intent of Congress through the Every Student Succeed Act was to provide clarity to states and districts on how they can and cannot act and thereby promote excellence and innovation, rather than a compliance mentality.

On a related matter, the Department deserves praise for eliminating in the new draft regulations the requirement that state and local funds be sufficient to fund a “basic educational program.” As we previously noted, this might have forced Title I spending on supplemental services, rather than on comprehensive instructional programs that states like Florida have used to raise significantly reading achievement of their students.

About the author

Matthew Joseph

Matthew is Policy Director for Education Funding Reform for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Matthew previously worked as a Senior Program Officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, spearheading a national initiative to improve strategic use of resources in public education. He also served as Executive Director of Advocates for Children and Youth, where he led successful efforts to improve education and other services in Maryland. He also worked as a Senior Associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Matthew received his Bachelor’s from Harvard University and a JD from the University of Maryland School of Law.