Category Archives: Federal Education Policy

Three Potential Risks of New Federal Weighted Student Funding Pilot

The education field widely acknowledges that some students may need additional support to thrive in school and beyond because of challenging life circumstances, specific learning needs, or other factors. And, in fact, the structure of federal funding programs like Title I and the design of many state school funding formulas recognize this principle and provide targeted support and differentiated funding based on specific student needs.

However, this idea is rarely reflected at the local district and school level, where budgets are more commonly based on inputs like staffing ratios and salary schedules that are not directly linked to the needs of students served in a given school. But a new federal pilot program authorized under the Every Student Succeeds Act, 2015, (ESSA) seeks to change that by incentivizing more districts to redesign their school funding methods around students.

School districts’ applications to participate in ESSA’s weighted student funding pilot program are due to Secretary DeVos today. And while these funding models could theoretically increase equity, the devil is in the details. The Department, advocates, and ed-watchers should be on the lookout for both the potential rewards and the risks of these district proposals.

Under a weighted student funding model (WSF), districts fund schools in whole or in part through a formula that considers the total number of students served in each school and specific student characteristics linked to higher costs. These types of formulas assign greater funding weight to students with such characteristics, sending more money to the schools serving them.

Well-designed WSF systems can counter the unfortunate result of common funding distribution methods currently in practice in many districts, where input-driven funding methods often result in higher funding levels in schools that serve fewer high-need students. As such, in theory, encouraging more districts to implement funding allocations that shift resources toward student need should be a boon to equity — a potentially big “reward.”

To date, districts that have implemented WSF, such as Boston, Denver, and Indianapolis, have limited these allocation methodologies to state and local funds. Federal funds have been left out of the mix primarily because federal regulatory and reporting requirements make it complicated and burdensome to mingle federal, state, and local resources in a single, unified WSF formula.

This ESSA pilot could change that by waiving many federal requirements and permitting approved districts to combine funds and allocate them to schools under locally determined WSF formulas. In exchange, these formulas must provide “substantially more” funding to low-income students and English language learners compared with other students.

However, relaxing regulatory oversight is risky. Despite requirements written into the law, vague guidance from the Department on how important regulatory protections will be evaluated and enforced could actually allow districts to participate in the pilot without increasing funding equity.

Risk #1: “Substantially more”

ESSA requires that pilot participants provide “substantially more” funding for low-income students, English learners, and any other group of disadvantaged students the district identifies. This requirement intends to protect against districts rolling back funding for services targeted for these students. However, in the application materials, the Department does not define how much more funding needs to go to identified students.

In fact, the law only requires that compared with the preceding year, districts provide “more” funding from all sources to low-income students and at least flat funding for English language learners. This establishes a baseline relative to prior funding for the targeted group and not relative to other students not identified as disadvantaged. It is easy to imagine how a district could comply with that rule without providing differentiated funding for low-income students or English language learners.

Risk #2: “Significant portion”

Even districts that have been using WSF models for a while don’t necessarily flow all funding through that formula. There are legitimate reasons for this, which may be tied to incremental implementation of WSF, separate accounting for capital costs, or other factors. The ESSA pilot requires that a “significant portion” of funds flow through participants’ WSF formulas. However, the application fails to define how much funding qualifies as “significant.” This is critical because the positive impact of a well-designed, equitable formula can be undermined if enough funds are funneled outside that formula through a more regressive method.

Risk #3: Scoring questions

In addition to vague guidance on issues critical to promoting equity, a lack of clarity regarding how district applications will be graded raises concerns. On each question, a district will receive a rating (strong, sufficient, insufficient) that corresponds with 10, 5, or 0 points. The top 50 plans based on total points will be approved. Application guidance does not indicate whether a 0 score on any section is disqualifying. As a result, it appears possible that a plan that earns 0 points on critical questions could still be approved if its total score lands it near the top of the list.

Although DeVos recently gave a strong speech about her disappointment in weak state ESSA accountability plans, she nevertheless approved them. The lack of clarity and rigor in the WSF pilot application drives concern that she may be similarly lax in approving these district plans.

The ESSA pilot could incentivize real gains to the equitable distribution of funding if it promotes well-designed local formulas that truly link resource allocation to the cost of supporting strong outcomes for all students. However, it remains to be seen whether the Department will harness this potential by elevating principles of equity in its review and approval process and enforcing the equity protections written into the law. Absent those commitments, the pilot could elevate funding models that do little to increase equity, or even roll it back. The education sector must pay careful attention to those devilish details, push districts to improve when necessary, and hold the Department accountable to the full legal requirements in the law.

Education Policy, Meet Human-Centered Design

In a lot of ways, the worlds of education policy and human-centered design couldn’t be more dissimilar. The former relies heavily on large-scale quantitative analysis and involves a long, complex public process. The latter is deeply qualitative, fast moving, creative, and generative. Policy professionals come up through the ranks in public agencies, campaigns, and think tanks. Deep issue expertise and sophisticated deductive reasoning are highly valued. Designers come from an array of backgrounds — the more unorthodox the better. Success for them comes from risk-taking, novel ideas, and synthesizing concepts across time, space, and sectors.

figure from Creating More Effective, Efficient, and Equitable Education Policies with Human-Centered Design comparing policy and design methods

figure from Creating More Effective, Efficient, and Equitable Education Policies with Human-Centered Design

I’m fortunate to have spent some time in both worlds. They each appeal to different parts of my personality. Policy analysis affords me order and confidence in answers based on facts. Design lets me flex my creative muscles, fail fearlessly, and have confidence in answers based on experience.

So when a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York gave me the opportunity to write a paper about bringing these two worlds together, I jumped at the chance — I knew that each could benefit from the other.

Creating More Effective, Efficient, and Equitable Education Policies with Human-Centered Design makes the case that policy practitioners can use human-centered methods to create better education policies because they are informed by the people whose lives will be most affected by them.

The underpinning hypothesis is that 1) co-designing policies with constituents can generate more accurate definitions of problems and more relevant solutions, 2) human-centered design can generate a wider variety of potential solutions leading to innovation, and 3) the process can mitigate or reverse constituent disenfranchisement with the lawmaking process.

Human-centered policy design is still a new practice, however, and there are still important questions to work out, like how to make sure the process is inclusive and where exactly human-centered design methods can enhance policy research and design.

Luckily, SXSW EDU, a huge national conference focused on innovation in education, is a perfect place to test new ideas. So I reached out to Maggie Powers, director of STEAM Innovation at Agnes Irwin School and member of IDEO’s Teachers Guild, and Matt Williams, vice president of Education at Goodwill of Central Texas, to explore what it would look like to apply human-centered design to policies that affect high school students whose education suffers because of lost credits when they transfer schools. Our session will pressure test some of the ideas that emerged in the paper. The results will inform the next phase of this work, which will help policy practitioners implement human-centered design methods. Keep an ear to the ground for that!

All Means All: Q&A About Using ESSA to Improve Education in Juvenile Justice Facilities

For the first time, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) includes new provisions explicitly aimed at supporting students attending school in juvenile facilities. While this is exciting news, it appears that states did not actually have to satisfy those provisions in order to have their plans approved by the federal Department of Education; these provisions were not included in the Department’s official peer review process, and they were also left off the list of provisions that Department staff would review internally. In Bellwether’s own recent review of all state plans (which focused only on the accountability portions of plans), no one saw any reference to juvenile justice facilities.

In order to think through how ESSA can be used to improve education programs in juvenile justice facilities, the American Youth Policy Forum, the Council of State Governments Justice Center, and the National Reentry Resource Center recently collaborated on a policy brief.

I spoke with Nina Salomon at the Council of State Governments Justice Center and Jenna Tomasello at the American Youth Policy Forum to learn more about this report and what they think we still need to do in order to improve education access and quality for young people incarcerated in juvenile justice facilities.

Your new report talks about leveraging ESSA to support the education success for students in juvenile justice facilities. What are some specific ways states should be responding to ESSA in order to serve these students?


ESSA aims to “provide all children significant opportunity to receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education, and to close educational achievement gaps.” For us, all means all, and we believe ESSA presents an opportunity for states to think about how to develop a statewide accountability system focused on continuous improvement that is inclusive of educational programs and schools serving students in juvenile justice facilities.

In the brief we focus specifically on Title 1, Part A as a leverage point in ESSA, but Title 1, Part D also has new and revised provisions to improve education outcomes of students in juvenile justice facilities. In our conversations with states, and our cursory review of state ESSA plans, it does not seem that juvenile justice stakeholders were at the table for ESSA planning conversations, and that ESSA plans seem to reflect this lack of involvement.

(Bellwether note: States that did use the optional federal template were asked to provide information about the Title I, Part D provisions specific to juvenile justice facilities. A summary and analysis of those responses is forthcoming from our team. Outside of that section, most states did not offer any additional information about education programs in juvenile justice facilities. ) Continue reading

Making a Federal Case Out of It: How Mark Janus Got to the Supreme Court

Mark Janus, child support specialist in the Illinois state family services agency, is challenging the state’s collective bargaining laws in a case that’s now before the U.S. Supreme Court. This case has potentially far-reaching implications, and oral arguments are scheduled for the end of this month.

When I was in law school, there were so many moments that I thought: “Why am I only learning this here, now, in law school? Everyone should know this stuff!” Civil procedure — the rules that govern the movement of a lawsuit through the courts — is one of those things. So let me outline the things you need to know to understand how Janus got to the Supreme Court. (Like any good lawyer, I’ll add that the answer to just about every legal question is actually “it depends…,” but for the sake of clarity, I’ve taken some liberties to simplify.)

The case started when Illinois’ governor Bruce Rauner sued to challenge his own state’s union agency fee statute, the law permitting collective bargaining units to charge all represented workers for the cost of representation even if they opt out of the union. The district court determined that his office hadn’t been harmed by the law and therefore lacked what’s called standing to sue. But the case was preserved by Mark Janus, whose lawyers had filed papers to be included as an intervener, an additional party who claims they have rights and/or injuries that are about to be adjudicated in an existing case. So when the court dismissed the Governor’s complaint, it opted to recognize Janus’s complaint as the operative one, meaning the one that’s current or pending before the court. Continue reading

Disproportionate School Discipline Is Not Separate From Justice System Disparities

In December of 2017, the United States Civil Rights Commission held a public briefing addressing the school-to-prison pipeline, paying special attention to students of color and students with disabilities and the impact of school suspensions and expulsions. There’s a debate centering around whether bias is at play in school discipline. (You can watch the archived livestream here.)

As usual, the Commission then opened a window for written public comments. I wrote a memo to the Commission to help place the conversation about disproportionate school discipline into context: school discipline is just one manifestation of a larger and well-studied criminal justice phenomenon. (This blog posts summarizes my comments; if you want to read my full memo, click here.)

Rates of disparate school discipline for students of color and students with disabilities parallel the disparate local and national rates of arrest, incarceration, and executions of people of color and people with disabilities. It is reasonable to infer that that the identified causes of those disparities are likely to be similar to — if not the same as — the differential rates of school-based discipline.

Efforts to claim that questions about school discipline are new and mysterious ignore the wealth of available data and expertise going back as far as the 1950s. None of these questions are novel, and the feigned confusion about how we could possibly know when and where bias against students of color and students with disabilities affects the imposition of punitive discipline are disingenuous.

Within the research, it is undisputed that the juvenile and adult justice systems come into more frequent contact with people of color and people with disabilities than their white and non-disabled counterparts. It is also undisputed that the consequences at each point of the interaction are more severe for people of color and people with disabilities. Here are some examples:

Bias is notoriously difficult to document, particularly where researchers are not recording data themselves but instead relying on the records kept by those whose behavior is under scrutiny. But a study in Cook County, Illinois, for example, found that when controlling for all other variables, judges demonstrated racial bias: “We find evidence of significant interjudge disparity in the racial gap in incarceration rates, which provides support for the model in which at least some judges treat defendants differently on the basis of their race. The magnitude of this effect is substantial.”

It is impossible to find a credible study that concludes that the difficulty of ascertaining the degree to which bias influences disparities means that no further investigation would be appropriate. In fact, those who study the issue consistently conclude that the undisputed statistical disparities point to a need for deeper investigation of specific systems, more complete data collection, and additional targeted research.

An attempt to frame the very same phenomenon when it appears in schools as the result of applying unbiased policies and practices ignores decades of relevant research. Schools are integral to, not separate from, our civic experience. Every person — child and adult — who shows up in a school building also exists outside of that building and within our larger civic context, a context that includes our law enforcement and justice systems. Discussions about when and how statistical evidence of disproportionality should trigger an investigation cannot be had in a vacuum; they should, instead, be grounded in the substantial body of research and evidence outside the schoolhouse walls.

Many of those who believe that the statistical differences in student discipline can be explained away by out-of-school factors or by objectively different student behavior have been pushing to nullify a 2014 guidance letter issued jointly by the Departments of Justice and Education. That letter made clear that significant disproportionality in the administration of suspensions and expulsions could lead to a federal investigation.

Evidence of disproportionality in the administration of punitive discipline strategies — both at school and in the justice system — is not sufficient to identify bias. It is, however, a leading indicator of where bias may be found if one were to investigate. Additionally, all of the existing research shows that a targeted inquiry is the only way to determine whether bias is, or is not, the underlying cause of the disparity.

The Commission is expected to review all of the briefing materials and public comments and release a public report, as it typically does. These reports are non-binding on government agencies but may include commentary about pending legislation or suggest new guidelines. I expect that this report will make a specific recommendation about rescinding or maintaining the 2014 joint guidance package on school discipline. Where bias does lead to differential treatment, federal civil rights protections must be enforced and constitutional and statutory protections against discrimination are implicated.