ESSA implementation: USED clarifies looming 2017-2018 school improvement funding questions


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In November last year, the U.S. Department of Education (USED) issued final regulations for Accountability and State Plans. Those regulations clarified that ESSA State Plan submission dates were being extended, and therefore, the dates for identifying schools for Comprehensive and Targeted Support and Improvement (the new labels for “school improvement”) were also being extended. Identification of schools for improvement under ESSA now won’t happen until the 2018-2019 school year.

This left State Education Agencies (SEAs) and Local Education Agencies (LEAs, aka school districts) with two resounding questions. These questions were so resounding that at USED meetings for SEA federal program administrators held in mid-December, one of the first things that USED staff said when beginning their session on accountability was that they were very aware of these two questions and were working on a response to address these issues. The questions are:

  • Will there be schools identified for improvement during the 2017-2018 school year (a requirement of ESSA for which funding is earmarked)?
  • What happens to the funding set aside by SEAs to award grants to support these low-performing school identified for improvement under ESSA?

In a January 13, 2017 email from Ann Whalen, Senior Advisor to the Secretary of Education, information was provided to help guide SEAs and LEAs through the issues surrounding these two questions.

For issues related to identifying schools for improvement the letter indicated that:

  • States that obtained ESEA flexibility may either: (1) continue to serve their existing priority and focus schools; or (2) refresh their list of focus and priority schools using the same methodology that was in place prior to the start of the 2017-2018 school year.
  • States that did not obtain ESEA flexibility must continue to support and intervene in schools or LEAs that were identified in the 2016-2017 school year by the State as in need of improvement, corrective action, or restructuring
  • One big change from the 2016-2017 transition guidance on this topic is that an SEA may remove from its list, any school (or LEA) that has met State-determined criteria to no longer be identified as a focus or priority school under ESEA flexibility, or no longer be identified for improvement, corrective action, or restructuring.

This last point is something that was asked for in the previous year, but was not granted. Due to the delay in implementation of accountability under ESSA, from 2017-2018 to 2018-2019, the USED was more agreeable to allowing schools (or LEAs) off these lists.

The other big question that was raised has to do with the fact that SEAs are required to set aside funds to support these low-performing schools identified for improvement. School improvement funds must be used to fund school improvement activities in schools identified under ESSA for Comprehensive and Targeted Support and Improvement starting in the 2017-2018 school year. Since potentially no schools will be identified for Comprehensive or Targeted Support and Improvement in 2017-2018, clarification was needed concerning how to administer these funds.

The solution provided in the letter from Ann Whalen is that funds set aside to support low-performing schools identified for improvement must be used to support the schools that are identified for improvement based on the answer to the first question. So, during the 2017-2018 school year, those schools and LEAs that continue in improvement, corrective action, or restructuring (non-flexibility waiver states) as well as those schools that either continue in or are identified as focus and priority schools will be eligible to receive these funds. The letters also notes that these funds can be carried over into the 2018-2019 school year and used to fund schools identified for Comprehensive or Targeted Support and Improvement during that school year.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact us at 425.977.2100, Option 3 or email at

Dr. David Holbrook

About The Author

Dr. David Holbrook is a nationally recognized leader in federal programs administration and monitoring with expertise in Title I, Title III, Native American Education, and Federal Programs. Dr. Holbrook has also worked as a consultant with Title III of the US Department of Education and now serves as Executive Director, Federal Compliance and State Relationships with TransAct.