If federal rules were relaxed, districts could better educate students, local school officials say
By JULIE GRACE and DAN BENSON | Sept. 12, 2017
The vast majority of local school officials in Wisconsin say they could better serve their students if they had more control over how federal dollars are spent.
But Wisconsin legislators either haven’t asked or aren’t listening because they’re not taking advantage of tools available under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, that would do that very thing.
It’s a missed opportunity, critics say, and a change that local school officials would welcome, a Wisconsin Policy Research Institute survey indicates.
The survey found more than 87 percent of superintendents and 81 percent of school board members and business managers responding said their schools would be more likely to “implement innovations that would improve educational outcomes for students” if they had more discretion over how federal funds are spent. (See survey results below.)
And those innovations would likely benefit students and teachers directly, the survey indicates, with 81 percent of superintendents, 67 percent of school board members and 56 percent of business managers saying they would redirect funds to classrooms if they could.
But Wisconsin’s current ESSA proposal isn’t going to let that happen.
“I can guarantee that if restrictions were shifted, we would be much more innovative and be able to have those discussions,” says Matt Spets, assistant superintendent of operations at the Howard-Suamico School District in Green Bay. “It’s hard to start that type of conversation when we can’t even serve the right mashed potatoes without the federal government restricting our food service program.”
“There is no room for thinking outside the box,” says Susan Jarvis, business manager for the Salem School District in Kenosha County. “We would like some autonomy to determine the best way to educate our students according to their needs and their individual personalities so they can receive the best possible education.”
“We need the freedom to address our local needs in the way our communities desire rather than fulfilling regulations and requirements,” a school board member in western Wisconsin responded in the survey. “But trust the local school boards to make appropriate decisions for their communities.”
ESSA was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2015 and is the latest in national education policy, succeeding the No Child Left Behind Act that was passed in 2002. Under ESSA, states are required to maintain a statewide report-card system for public schools, measure teacher effectiveness and explain how they will improve low-performing schools. Plans must be approved by the U.S. Department of Education. By September, 16 states and the District of Columbia had submitted their ESSA plans and six had been approved.
The deadline for the remaining 34 states, including Wisconsin, is Sept. 18.
“When we take the handcuffs off, we’ll unleash a whole flood of innovation and ingenuity classroom by classroom,” one of ESSA’s authors, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), said when the law was passed.
“Allowing states more flexibility in how they deliver education to students is at the core of ESSA,” said a statement from the office of Education Secretary Betsy Devos.
Delaware was the first state to have its plan approved by DeVos. It allows low-performing Title I schools — those with large populations of disadvantaged students — to develop improvement programs and apply to the state for competitive grants to implement them.
In Tennessee, officials are proposing that districts be allowed to use funds to create innovation models within a district to address low-performing schools. Florida offers incentives to successful charter school operators to open schools in areas with low-performing public schools, giving parents more educational choices. New Mexico wants to close failing schools and reopen them as charters.
Wisconsin’s plan was submitted to Gov. Scott Walker’ office in August. He has until the Sept. 18 deadline to comment or propose revisions. If he does not, the plan will go the Department of Education as proposed by Tony Evers, superintendent of Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction. Emails and phone calls to Ever’s office were not immediately returned.
(Within 24 hours of this article being published online, the governor sent a letter to Evers saying he will not sign the ESSA draft submitted to his office unless it includes "innovative policies to improve education outcomes" and urges Evers to "resubmit a new proposal that allows our schools to innovate and students to succeed.")
Wisconsin’s apparent lost opportunity to implement a reform supported by local school officials is due to its ESSA proposal being written by Evers, “a notorious opponent of education reform,” wrote C.J. Szafir and Libby Sobic of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty in an August Wall Street Journal op-ed.
“So far, ESSA has been a missed opportunity for Wisconsin, a state struggling with low-performing public schools and the widest racial achievement gap in the country,” the two wrote.
Evers, who has announced he will seek the Democratic nomination for governor in 2018, created the advisory Equity in ESSA Council, consisting of legislators, a representative from Walker’s office and educators, to create the illusion of including legislators in the plan’s development. But the council had no formal authority to shape the proposal and was only advisory.
“The cake is baked,” state Rep. John Jagler (R-Watertown), a member of the Assembly Education Committee, said in April regarding the council.
“Evers believed that he alone had the authority to create the ESSA plan,” council member and School Choice Wisconsin President Jim Bender says. “The council was created merely to offer recommendations to the superintendent, not to have any tangible role in its creation. The council discussed a wide array of topics within the ESSA plan, but at no point did any of its members have any actual power, including the legislative members.
“The Legislature had a wide array of options on their level of involvement,” Bender says. “In the end, they could not find consensus and remained on the outside looking in.”
Officials who responded to WPRI’s survey had no lack of examples of how spending controls inhibit their ability to serve students.
In the Pulaski School District near Green Bay, officials wanted to hire learning support teachers to assist students who are below grade level in reading and math at schools with the highest need. But federal regulations require them to base funding on enrollment rather than need. Adding a teacher to a smaller-enrollment, higher-need school, for instance, created a funding imbalance between it and larger schools. To rectify that “imbalance,” the district had to spend additional money at the larger school either on staff or on supplies.
“Title 1 is tied to enrollment with the assumption that your enrollment should be directly tied to your need, but we all know that just plain numbers don’t connect to need,” says Pulaski Superintendent Bec Kurzynske.
Wendy Dzurick, superintendent of the Marinette School District, says she’d like to expand the use of professional development dollars for teacher training.
“As a district, we will create a program that’s aligned with outcomes that is based on needs identified through local data, but it gets pushed back because it doesn’t align with certain federal government criteria,” Dzurick says. “To meet the needs of our students, I believe you have to allow more local control over certain decisions.”
One idea that would have solved Pulaski’s problem but failed to be included in ESSA would allow Title I dollars to be “portable” so that they follow the child, rather than being assigned to schools based on enrollment. It’s an idea supported by DeVos and President Donald Trump.
Another proposal, reportedly supported by DeVos and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), called the A-PLUS — Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success — Act, was originally included in ESSA by Congress but later excised. It would have let states opt out of some provisions of the law while still receiving federal dollars via block grants, allowing them to direct dollars to their most pressing education needs.
“Leaving major decisions up to local school boards who know and understand their communities and the needs of the community is the most important ingredient in allowing schools to function efficiently and effectively,” the school board member in western Wisconsin said in the survey.
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: Federal rules distort local education policy
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. If local school officials had more discretion over how federal funds are spent, do you think it would be much more, somewhat more, about the same, somewhat less or much less likely that your district would implement innovative ideas to improve your district and improve education for your students?
Much more likely 53.78% 64
Somewhat more likely 33.61% 40
About the same 10.92% 13
Somewhat less likely 0.84% 1
Much less likely 0% 0
Don’t know 0.84% 1
School Board members
Much more likely 49.22% 127
Somewhat more likely 32.17% 83
About the same 13.57% 35
Somewhat less likely 1.31% 3
Much less likely 0.44% 1
Don’t know 3.49% 9
Much more likely 40.54% 30
Somewhat more likely 40.54% 30
About the same 16.22% 12
Somewhat less likely 1.47% 1
Much less likely 0% 0
Don't know 1.47% 1
Much more likely 49% 221
Somewhat more likely 33.92% 153
About the same 11.75% 53
Somewhat less likely 1.10% 5
Much less likely 0.22% 1
Don’t know 2.44% 11
Q. If local school officials had more discretion over how federal funds were spent, would more funds be allocated toward any of the following areas, or would spending priorities remain the same? (Check all that apply.)
Teachers and classroom instruction 80.67% 96
Support services 47.06% 56
Administration 3.36% 4
Operations 21.01% 25
Capital improvements 21.01% 25
Spending priorities would not change 10.92% 13
Don't know 5.04% 6
School Board members
Teachers and classroom instruction 66.28% 171
Support services 37.98% 98
Administration 5.04% 13
Operations 18.99% 49
Capital improvements 25.19% 65
Spending priorities would not change 15.12% 39
Don't know 10.47% 27
Teachers and classroom instruction 56.76% 42
Support services 25.68% 19
Administration 2.70% 2
Operations 5.41% 4
Capital improvements 5.41% 4
Spending priorities would not change 35.14% 26
Don't know 8.11% 6
Teachers and classroom instruction 68.51% 309
Support services 38.36% 173
Administration 4.21% 19
Operations 17.29% 78
Capital improvements 20.84% 94
Spending priorities would not change 17.29% 78
Don't know 7.98% 36