• Urban Educator logo

  • Accelerating Learning Recovery from Policy Miscalculations

    By Manish Naik, Director of Legislative Services

    In early June, the U.S. Department of Education finalized requirements for the Maintenance of Equity provision under the American Rescue Plan’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ARP-ESSER) funds. Included by Congress for the first time under ARP-ESSER, Maintenance of Equity requires SEAs and LEAs to maintain funding in their high poverty districts and schools, respectively. The law requires school districts specifically to meet two compliance tests in each of the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years, prohibiting the reduction of both per-pupil funding and per-pupil full-time employees (FTEs) in its high-poverty schools by an amount greater than a districtwide reduction.

    Similar federal compliance tests have been considered in Washington for years but have never been adopted, either during legislative amendments to the Title I comparability provision or more recently in proposed “Supplement not Supplant” regulations after the Every Student Succeeds Act was passed. The goal of protecting state and local funding in our highest poverty schools is laudable, but the conceptual ideal does not work when confronted with operational realities on the ground.

    School districts that allocate funding primarily based on “weighted student” counts would not meet Maintenance of Equity requirements in schools as a result of enrollment losses involving higher-weighted low-income students, English learners, or children with disabilities. Other districts might assign specialized teachers to schools based on enrollment – one teacher for every ten students with specific needs, for example -- and could not comply with Maintenance of Equity if the two teachers assigned for 12 students was reduced to one teacher for nine students the following year.

    Many school districts have also adopted school-based budgeting and decision-making, allowing principals, school staff, and the community to provide input and make decisions about school-level services and staffing. These schools would be out of compliance if they decided to add one teacher to the school staff in the upcoming year by reducing the positions of two or three instructional aides. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, many states and districts provided hold-harmless funding for schools even when less students were enrolled or made large investments in technology or coronavirus mitigation measures. Both scenarios resulted in artificially-inflated spending levels in one year compared to the next and would result in non-compliance.

    The underlying Maintenance of Equity provision in ARP-ESSER and the initial guidance from the U.S. Department of Education did not take into account these endless variations in school funding systems across the nation, even in situations where no reduction in funding for high-poverty schools occurred. The result could have meant widespread non-compliance in tens of thousands of schools, absent outreach from states and school districts noting the endless number of exceptions that would be needed from the Secretary of Education. Realizing the unviability of the provision, the Department first updated their guidance to provide a 2021-22 exemption for school districts that, “did not have an aggregate reduction in combined State and local per-pupil funding.” After additional review, the Department updated its guidance again a few months later to extend the same exception for school year 2022-23.

    The flexibility provided in the updated guidance and final requirements were welcome at the local level and helped avoid unnecessary financial disruptions to districts that are trying to operate schools, accelerate instruction and provide support services in uncertain times. In the future, and hopefully absent a pandemic and the resulting staffing shortages, supply chain issues, and health and safety crises, policymakers should note that attempts to direct school finances and staffing from the federal level have repeatedly proven unworkable.