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May 04, 2017

Last week, I provided an overview of federal safe and healthy schools funding, citing years of decreasing support from the U.S. Department of Education (ED). This trend has been sharply reversed with Congress’s 2017 budget deal, which includes formula dollars dedicated to student well-being for the first time since 2009.

To be clear, a $400 million appropriation for the new Student Support and Academic Enrichment (SSAE) program is a far cry from the $1.6 billion target in the program’s authorizing statute. And this amount must support a grab bag of programs, from student safety and health to rigorous coursework and education technology. Nevertheless, it’s a new infusion of badly needed funding to address a range of persistent issues, including school discipline practice and policy, bullying prevention and school safety, child obesity, and even our growing opioid crisis.

Unfortunately, it’s not clear that states are taking full advantage of this opportunity. While states must submit a plan to ED to describe how they will implement SSAE, they have the option of including this information in their consolidated state plans, which were/are due to ED by either April 3 or September 18. Each of the 11 states that met the April deadline opted to include relatively short, often generic descriptions of their SSAE approach in their consolidated plans. Some states even used language that closely mimics ED’s non-regulatory guidance. Of course, it could be that the states opting for the early date chose simpler, more flexible plans due to the uncertainty about the new program’s funding.

With the budget just about settled, here’s hoping the remaining states will take time to develop full and detailed implementation plans. While SSAE is cobbled together from various grant programs that are no longer funded, the resulting program is still an entirely new formula grant program. States cannot simply dust off old playbooks to find their SSAE strategy. For one thing, the defunded grants were mostly short-term grants designed for school districts. It would also be unwise for states to simply disburse SSAE dollars to all districts on a formula basis (rather than a few districts based on a competition) if there isn’t sufficient funding. The previous formula program, the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Grant, was defunded in 2010 after Congress agreed that the “program [spread] funding too thinly at the local level to support high-quality interventions in schools that need the most help.”

States will need robust new plans that articulate their overarching goals for improving student health and safety. They need to clarify how SSAE will align with broader efforts to strengthen educator training and support underperforming schools. However, improving student well-being is not a job that education officials should tackle alone. For this reason, the plan should also consider how SSAE will contribute to other health, public safety, and juvenile justice initiatives taking place within the state.

There’s not a lot of time left before the September 18 deadline, but here’s one reason why states should invest the time in SSAE: Congress has already defunded a safe school formula program once. It could do so again.

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