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Federal rules distort local education policy

School officials make decisions they wouldn’t make otherwise to comply with funding requirements

 

By JULIE GRACE and DAN BENSON | Sept. 12, 2017

When a van used for transporting special education students in the Pulaski School District near Green Bay had piled on the miles and was due to be replaced, district officials thought the common-sense thing to do would be to reuse the van for lower-priority purposes, such as hauling athletic equipment and making deliveries between buildings.

But because the van was purchased under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, regulations wouldn’t allow it to be used for any other purpose. So the district was forced to sell the van and replace it or else face a reduction in federal funding equal to the value of the van.

“It’s probably not the most efficient way if we have a piece of equipment that still has some useful life, but because of the complexities of those federal funds, it’s easier to sell them than repurpose them in the district,” says Bec Kurzynske, Pulaski superintendent.

“We rely on federal dollars, and we don’t want that money to go away,” she says. “But sometimes (the federal government) just creates operational inefficiencies.”

Pulaski’s experience isn’t uncommon. When it comes to dealing with federal funding for local schools, dollars from D.C. not only come with myriad regulations, increased bureaucracy and other hidden costs, they also force local school officials to make decisions they wouldn’t make otherwise.

Those actions sometimes come at the expense of students, teachers and staff, officials say. That has some wondering whether to take the money at all and questioning what the federal government is adding to the education of their students, a Wisconsin Policy Research Institute survey finds.

School officials say decisions distorted

In the survey, taken in July and August, about 60 percent of local school officials agreed with this statement: “Restrictions on how federal funds are spent harmfully distort the decisions that local school officials make on behalf of their students.” The rest felt that restrictions “help ensure that local school officials attend to the best interests of their students.” (See survey results below.)

In the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District, for example, officials are forced to equally distribute federal money across schools, regardless of need, because funding is based on enrollment. Some lower-performing schools could use an additional reading or math tutor, but funds must be spent instead in another larger school on flashcards, calculators or rulers simply to even out the spending between buildings.

“This is something I really struggle with,” says Andy Chromy, the district’s business manager. “To me, it seems odd.”

In the survey, three-fourths of school officials thought there were “too many restrictions” on how local districts can spend federal funds. And two-thirds rated federal reporting requirements imposed on their districts as “extremely” or “very”
 time-consuming.

“Federal regulations are extremely time-consuming for the little amount of funding we receive,” one superintendent responded in the survey.

Plus, almost 60 percent said federal paperwork takes teachers and staff away from students and the classroom.

The level of frustration has some school officials wondering why the federal government is involved in education at all.

“Eliminate the Department of Education,” the superintendent of a large suburban district in southeastern Wisconsin said in the survey. “It has not benefited public education.”

“I would like to see the federal government out of education completely,” said a central Wisconsin school board member. “We send our money to Washington to give bureaucrats a job, only to have them send a smaller allotment back to us.”

It's a product of a one-size-fits-all approach to local education being run from nearly a thousand miles away in Washington, D.C., and the feds’ emphasis on compliance rather than outcomes, local officials say.

“Let’s face it, many of the senators and representatives don’t actually know where the money is going,” says Rita Kasten, who has served 38 years on the school board of the DC Everest school district near Wausau. Federal lawmakers think the funding “makes them look good. Yes, it gives us extra money, but it has to be used how they want it to be used,” she says.

It was an oft-repeated refrain among school officials who responded to WPRI’s survey.

“The local district is very capable of managing federal funds,” a school board member in rural northeastern Wisconsin said. “Many of the regulations restrict the effectiveness of the dollars spent.”

Feds’ influence

Federal dollars wield an influence over local education that overshadows the amount of money allocated. At the state level, about 13 percent of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s budget — $1.7 billion of $13 billion — comes from the federal government. But nearly half its employees — 302 of 634 measured as full-time equivalent employees — work for and are paid by the feds, state budget documents show. At the local level, about 10 percent of school funding comes from Washington. But local officials say its impact is much larger.

“The percentage of revenue coming from federal funds is very low. However, the influence the federal government has on our policy, procedure, educational requirements, etc., is disproportionately high,” one business manager said in the survey.

Every dollar received must be accounted for and spent in strictly prescribed ways. A school district that runs afoul of those rules may have its funding cut or be forced to pay back money. That threat has districts constantly scrambling to keep their bureaucratic overseers in Madison and Washington satisfied and out of their hair, they say.

More than 30 percent of local school officials who responded to the survey said their districts had hired staff specifically to manage federal grants or that they would if they could afford to do so.

The West Allis-West Milwaukee School District hired a grant administrator, at an annual salary of $116,000, in early 2016 after a federal audit found accounting issues, leaving the district on the hook to pay back up to $3.5 million in federal funds. A team of state auditors reviewed the district’s books and found that the money was spent properly but not accounted for correctly, reducing the amount to a still-significant $209,000.

Even among those who said their existing staff was managing the federal workload, many said it often forces overtime.

“I more wish I had the capacity in central office staff,” says Ben Niehaus, Florence County School District superintendent. “Yet due to budget constraints, several people wear multiple hats to satisfy bureaucracy more and more.”

Accountability vs. regulations

An argument for all the federal paperwork and oversight is that school districts need to be held accountable for their use of federal funds. Local school officials agreed accountability is important, but the majority who responded to the WPRI survey believe federal regulations do not do that. More than 75 percent of superintendents said federal regulations “do very little to support the necessary oversight and accountability of public schools.” A majority of school board members and business managers agreed.

“Accountability is essential when spending taxpayer funds, but limited small school staffs are drowning in regulations,” one business manager responded.

“We are all for accountability for our actions,” another business manager said, “but sometimes the regulations that we have to follow take us away from the most important job at hand, and that is producing the best possible outcome for our students.”

In fact, only 14 percent of school officials said accountability would suffer if federal oversight were relaxed.

“Local control!” one school board member demanded in a survey comment. “Voters can hold local boards accountable much more effectively than they can hold federal office-holders accountable.”

Washington’s involvement in education has been a fact of life since the 1960s. But its role in funding and overseeing spending at the local level has grown exponentially, especially since passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002. Department of Education spending, measured in constant dollars, has grown from about $25 billion a year in the 1970s to around $130 billion today, according to one analysis.

Neither the state nor federal government currently tracks federal employment at the local school level. But 258 school districts, out of 424 in Wisconsin, that responded to a WPRI request for information in May report that between them they employed 3,840 full-time-equivalent employees working for and paid through federal programs, earning an average of about $52,000 a year in salary and benefits.

The system has some districts wondering whether they should accept federal money at all.

 “There should be a warning sticker or something that lets you know if you accept this money, it’s going to cost you this much,” says Kieth Kriewaldt, administrator for the Erin School District in Washington County. “That’s why we turn money back. More and more school districts are doing that.”

Patricia Deklotz, superintendent of the Kettle Moraine School District in Wales, says her district does not go after every federal grant available because of the strings attached.

A few years ago, her district passed on federal funding to help reduce class size because it would have meant subdividing classrooms and meeting other requirements, which Deklotz says were too costly.

“The strings that accompanied it were more than we could afford,” she says.

Julie Grace, a graduate student studying communications at Marquette University, is an intern at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. Dan Benson is editor of the institute’s Project for 21st Century Federalism.

Related story: Wisconsin legislators missing opportunity to take control of education

About the survey

The Wisconsin Policy Research Institute in July and August of 2017 surveyed local school superintendents, school board members and business managers in all 424 Wisconsin public school districts to get their opinions on federal funding of local schools. Of 410 superintendents contacted, 119 (29.04 percent) completed the survey; of 2,058 school board members, 258 (12 percent) responded; of 223 business managers, 74 (33.18 percent) responded. All told, 451 out of 2,691 officials responded to the survey — a 16.76 percent response rate. The survey was conducted through Survey Monkey and sent to officials via email. The questions were multiple choice, but respondents were given the opportunity to comment. Their answers and comments were anonymous unless the respondents gave permission that their names and titles be used for publication. Some were contacted by phone and email for additional comments. The full survey results will be published this fall. Below are the questions referenced in this article, with results from each of the three groups as well as the aggregate total.

Q. Which of the following statements comes closer to your view?

1.      Restrictions on how federal funds are spent help ensure that local school officials attend to the best interests of their students.

2.      Restrictions on how federal funds are spent harmfully distort the decisions that local school officials make on behalf of their students.

Superintendents

1.      35.29%                        42

2.      64.71%                        77

School Board members

1.      40.31%                        104

2.      59.69%                        154

Business managers

1.      54.05%                        40

2.      45.95%                        34

Aggregate

1.      41.24%                        186

2.      59.64%                        269

Q. Do you think there are too many, about the right number or too few restrictions on how local districts can spend funds received from the federal government?

Superintendents

               Too many restrictions                    82.35%                 98

               About the right number                 15.13%                 18

               Too few restrictions                        0%                        0

               Don’t know                                     2.52%                   3

School Board members

               Too many restrictions                    67.05%                173

               About the right number                 20.93%                 54

               Too few restrictions                        1.16%                   3

               Don’t know                                    10.85%                 28

Business managers

               Too many restrictions                    74.32%                 55

               About the right number                 24.32%                 18

               Too few restrictions                       0%                         0

               Don’t know                                    1.35%                   1

Aggregate

               Too many restrictions                    72.28%                 326

               About the right number                 19.95%                 90

               Too few restrictions                       0.66%                   3

               Don’t know                                    7.09%                   32

Q. Are reporting requirements from the federal government extremely, very, somewhat or not especially time-consuming?

Superintendents

               Extremely time-consuming                          38.66%                 46

               Very time-consuming                                   37.82%                 45

               Somewhat time-consuming                         22.69%                 27

               Not especially time-consuming                      0.84%                  1

               Don’t know                                                    0%                        0

School Board members

               Extremely time-consuming                          20.54%                53

               Very time-consuming                                   39.92%                103

               Somewhat time-consuming                         21.71%                56

               Not especially time-consuming                    1.94%                   5

               Don’t know                                                  15.89%                41

Business managers

               Extremely time-consuming                          24.32%                18

               Very time-consuming                                   39.19%                29

               Somewhat time-consuming                         33.78%                25

               Not especially time-consuming                     2.70%                   2

               Don’t know                                                    0%                        0

Aggregate

               Extremely time-consuming                          25.94%                117

               Very time-consuming                                   39.25%                177

               Somewhat time-consuming                         23.95%                108

               Not especially time-consuming                      1.77%                   8

               Don’t know                                                     9.09%                   41

Q. Which of the following statements comes closer to your view about the accompanying paperwork from the federal government?

1.      Paperwork associated with federal education funding too often takes teachers and other staff away from the classroom and otherwise working with students.

2.      Paperwork associated with federal education funding does not disrupt the efforts of teachers and staff working with students.

Superintendents

1.      59.66%                 71

2.      40.34%                 48

School Board members

1.      63.95%                165

2.      36.05%                93

Business managers

1.      43.24%                32

2.      56.76%                42

Aggregate

1.      59.42%                268

2.      40.58%                183

Q. Which of the following statements most closely matches your district’s experience in dealing with the reporting requirements for federal education funds?

1.      Federal reporting requirements are so complex, contain so much red tape and compliance penalties are so onerous, the district has had to hire additional and/or expert staff to manage federal grant programs and oversee their implementation.

2.      Despite the challenges of satisfying federal reporting requirements, the district’s regular business staff have been able to manage federal grant programs and their implementation.

3.      Budget constraints do not allow us to add staff to help manage federal grants, but we would do so if funds were available.

Superintendents

1.      14.29%                        17

2.      64.71%                        77

3.      21.01%                        25

School Board members

1.      13.18%                        34

2.      67.44%                        174

3.      19.38%                        50

Business managers

1.      6.76%                          5

2.      79.73%                        59

3.      13.51%                        10

Aggregate

1.      12.42%                        56

2.      68.74%                        310

3.      18.85%                        85

Q. Which statement comes closer to your view?

1.      Federal government reporting requirements are critical for ensuring the necessary oversight and accountability of public schools.

2.      Federal government reporting requirements do very little to support the necessary oversight and accountability of public schools.

Superintendents

1.      25.21%                        30

2.      74.79%                        89

School Board members

1.      46.51%                        120

2.      53.49%                        138

Business managers

1.      45.96%                        34

2.      54.05%                        40

Aggregate

1.      40.80%                        184

2.      59.20%                        267

Q. If local school officials had more discretion over how federal funds were spent, do you think there would be much more, somewhat more, about the same, somewhat less or much less accountability in how federal funds are spent than there is now?

Superintendents

               There would be much more accountability             10.08%                12

               Somewhat more                                                     19.33%                 23

               About the same                                                       61.34%                73

               Somewhat less                                                          8.40%                10

               Much less accountability                                            0%                       0

               Don’t know                                                                 0.84%                  1

School Board members

               There would be much more accountability             13.57%                35

               Somewhat more                                                      21.32%                55

               About the same                                                       43.41%                112

               Somewhat less                                                        10.08%                26

               Much less accountability                                           3.88%                 10

               Don’t know                                                               7.75%                   20

Business managers

               There would be much more accountability             4.05%                   3

               Somewhat more                                                     14.86%                 11

               About the same                                                      55.41%                 41

               Somewhat less                                                       17.57%                 13

               Much less accountability                                          6.76%                   5

               Don’t know                                                               1.35%                   1

Aggregate

               There would be much more accountability            11.08%                 50

               Somewhat more                                                      19.73%                 89

               About the same                                                       50.11%                 226

               Somewhat less                                                         10.86%                 49

               Much less accountability                                           3.32%                  15

               Don’t know                                                                 4.88%                  22

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