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Aurora Institute

ESSA: From Compliance to Opportunity

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Samantha Tankersley

Issue(s): Federal Policy, Harness Opportunities in ESSA

ESSA Compliance to OpportunityThis post originally appeared at Getting Smart on May 25, 2016. 

As mentioned in our previous post, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) not only challenges states with the task of navigating a diminished federal role in education, but provides them with new opportunities to use federal funds to support state innovations.

States can capitalize on the provisions outlined in ESSA to develop and implement strategies that encourage personalization, rigor and excellence. Over the next 13 months, states should work to identify priorities and establish which provisions within the new federal law they can leverage to accomplish their goals.

So, what is in this law for YOUR state?

While there are numerous provisions within ESSA to meet a variety of state priorities, we chose to focus on two big levers: the Direct Student Services provision and the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants.

Direct Student Services

The Direct Student Services provision provides states with an opportunity to use choice and other student services to spur improvement in districts with the lowest performing schools. States may choose to reserve up to 3% of their Title I funds to award competitive grants to districts for the purpose of (you guessed it!) providing Direct Student Services.

To receive funds, districts must apply to the state. Ninety-nine percent of these funds must be distributed to districts, and awards must go to districts serving the highest number of schools identified for comprehensive and targeted support and improvement. But, the state can use the application process to create incentives to use Direct Student Services funds on certain priorities, and the state need not award funds to every applicant.

So, what priorities can this provision support? Beginning in the 2017-18 school year, states and districts can use Direct Student Services funds to support a number of initiatives, including but not limited to the following:

For a more detailed look at how states can use Direct Student Services provision to advance reform, check out this excellent paper by Chiefs for Change.

Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants

Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants also give states some new opportunities to support their priority innovations. This new program rolled up 40 to 50 program authorizations into a single block grant and created an authorized funding level of $1.6 billion. However, the previous programs that were combined to create the block grant received appropriations of only $400 million in fiscal year 2016.

While most of the authority over how the money is spent lies with districts, districts are required to fund activities in three categories: well-rounded educational opportunities, safe and healthy students and effective use of technology.

Plus, districts who receive awards over $30,000 must submit an application to the state describing the programs and activities they will carry out. These districts must also conduct needs assessment every three years. This application process provides the state with an opportunity to direct funds towards state-determined priorities within the three categories:

  • Well-rounded educational opportunities: This category must account for at least 20% of funds; it includes efforts to increase access to and success in a well-rounded educational experience. Under this category, states could push districts to expand supplemental course offerings through a Course Access program or to raise student achievement through directing funds towards accelerated learning programs such as AP/IB.
  • Safe and healthy students: This category includes activities that foster safe, healthy, supportive and drug-free schools and/or promote the involvement of parents. This category must also account for at least 20% of funds.
  • Effective use of technology: This category includes providing resources to help teachers and administrators personalize learning; building capacity and infrastructure; and developing strategies for the delivery of specialized or rigorous academic courses or curricula through technology.

However, no more than 15% of funds can be used on technology infrastructure (defined as purchasing devices, equipment, and software applications). Districts (or consortia of districts) can leverage the funds provided under this category of the block grant to carry out blended learning, provide professional development opportunities and build capacity and infrastructure.

This block grant is likely to be available annually starting with the 2017-18 school year.


Need more? Check out our summary, ESSA PowerPoint deck or visit for more information on how you can use these levers to support innovative and effective policy in your state.

See also:

Samantha Tankersley serves as Policy Coordinator for The Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd).