Education Department Finalizes ‘Supplement Not Supplant’ Rules That Advocates Fear Could Harm Low-Income Students

The Education Department on Thursday finalized rules that advocates have warned undermines a key law meant to ensure equitable education spending for low-income children.

The long-standing “supplement not supplant” rule requires school districts to show they’re not using federal Title I grants for low-income students where they should instead be using state and local dollars. It’s been the subject of long-running federal policy debates since the Every Student Succeeds Act was reauthorized in 2016; an Obama administration proposal was never finalized.

Rather than mandating specifics, the department requires that districts use a “Title I neutral” methodology when doling out funds, meaning simply that officials aren’t explicitly giving a school less money because it has a large number of low-income children.

Such a methodology also wouldn’t use a proxy for Title I status, “such as a school’s number or percentage of students in poverty or vague terms such as ‘educational need,’” that would result in a Title I school receiving less than a non-Title I school, the department said in one of the expanded parts of the guidance.

Overall, the final version of the guidance published this week makes relatively few changes from the January version that advocates criticized. Among the changes, it clarifies that:

—Districts don’t have to include private contributions, parent fees, fundraising or other outside grants in supplement-not-supplant calculations, unless states or districts require it.

—While there’s no federal requirement that districts post their funding allocation methods online, state education departments may mandate it, and posting it “will be useful to the [district’s] stakeholders, particularly parents and families.”

—The rule also applies to school improvement grants given under Title I.

The department has emphasized flexibility and the need to reduce the regulatory burden on school districts.

“This proposal does not change the legal obligations school districts have to make appropriate investments in education. It simply makes clear that a school district has significant flexibility in how it demonstrates compliance with the law,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a release Thursday. (Those exact sentences were also part of the quote attributed to her in the January release.)

As we previously covered at The 74 earlier this year:

Advocates worried that the rules give districts too much leeway and undermine those protections for low-income children.

“We’re very concerned at this point that one of the most critical civil rights components of ESSA has been undermined,” said Lynn Jennings, director of national and state partnerships at The Education Trust, a nonprofit group that advocates for educational rights for low-income students and children of color. (John King, the former education secretary who proposed his own, never-implemented version of supplement-not-supplant regulations, is now the group’s president and CEO.)

Advocates say the new proposal from DeVos, if enacted, would hamper their efforts to more equitably distribute resources.

“For any advocates who care about resource equity at the state and local level, it is 100 percent clear that supplement not supplant is not the hook you are looking for to fix that problem,” said Anne Hyslop, associate director of policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

It’s difficult to come up with a rule that provides districts with flexibility and offers protections to Title I schools, said Jonathan Travers, a partner at Education Resource Strategies, a nonprofit that helps districts with school improvement.

“In this case, I fully see the flexibility, but I’m not sure how Title I schools are actually protected,” he said.

Under the new proposal, districts don’t necessarily have to develop a new methodology for doling out funds. Although the guidance offers two possibilities that would meet muster — a weighted funding system and a system that allocates funding based on staff and supplies — districts are free to use another method.

The guidance is one of the few the Trump administration has released for states implementing ESSA, and in some cases, it has clarified important concerns. For example, states wouldn’t have to include districtwide expenses like substitute teachers in their supplement-not-supplant calculations, Hyslop said.

Read more about advocates’ early concerns with DeVos’s proposal, and the 2016 fight over an Obama administration supplement-not-supplant proposal.

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