The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which was signed into law by President Obama in December, has been hailed as a bipartisan effort to fix the most problematic provisions in NCLB.

Two oft-repeated criticisms of the old law were that it forced unfunded mandates onto schools and that its focus on reading and math achievement narrowed curricula. Congress responded by rolling dozens of federal grants into one block grant program called the Student Support and Academic Enrichment (SSAE) grant.

The SSAE grant is billed as a flexible funding source intended to empower states to improve student academic achievement by increasing capacity. In order to receive SSAE funds, states are required to submit applications to the department and then distribute the majority of funds to local districts through another application process. The activities that local districts are entitled to use SSAE funds for fall into three categories: efforts to promote a well-rounded education, safe and healthy students, and the effective use of technology. (These were also the areas of focus of the preexisting federal programs that were rolled into this block grant.)

The amount allotted to each state will depend on annual appropriations. According to the Foundation for Excellence in Education, if the program is fully funded at its authorization level—a total of $1.6 billion—grants will range from $3,700,000 (Wyoming) to $188,600,000 (California). Fordham’s home state of Ohio would have access to $61,500,000. That may be optimistic, though, since SSAE’s preexisting programs were funded in 2016 for only $400 million. (You can check out projections for every state here.)

While 95 percent of a state’s allocation must be reserved for district awards, states are permitted to use the remaining percentage for state activities.[1] Acceptable activities include: identifying and eliminating barriers to the integration of programs and funding streams; providing monitoring, training, technical assistance, and capacity building to districts that are awarded SSAE funds; and supporting districts in providing programs and activities that fall into one of the three previously mentioned categories.

Of course, the most interesting part of the SSAE grant is what districts can spend it on. Here’s a look at the three spending categories:

Well-rounded education opportunities

The emphasis on—and targeted funds for—a well-rounded education (WRE) is a clear response to curriculum narrowing. Programs and activities under this category can be coordinated with other schools and community-based programs. It can also be conducted in partnership with higher education institutions, businesses, nonprofits, community-based organizations, or other public or private entities with a demonstrated record of success. The law provides a host of examples—but no requirements—for what could constitute a WRE program. They include: college and career guidance and counseling; programs and activities that use music and the arts to support student success (programs like this come to mind); programming that improves instruction and engagement in STEM fields (including the creation and enhancement of STEM schools); raising achievement through accelerated learning programs; activities that promote the development and strengthening of programs to teach American history, civics, economics, geography, or government; foreign language instruction; environmental education; programs that promote volunteerism and community involvement; programs that support the integration of multiple disciplines; and any other activities that support student access and success in well-rounded education experiences. ESSA mandates that a district must use no less than 20 percent of its SSAE allocation for WRE programs.

Safe and healthy students

The funds in this category—which must also equal no less than 20 percent of a district’s allocation—are intended to develop, implement, and evaluate programs that make schools safer and healthier. In particular, programs are intended to foster supportive and drug-free school environments and promote parental involvement. Like the WRE category, the safe and healthy students section allows districts to conduct programs in partnership with higher education institutions, businesses, nonprofits, community-based organizations, or other entities with a demonstrated record of success. Activities include (but aren’t limited to): drug and violence prevention programs that are evidence-based; school-based mental health services based on trauma-informed practices and provided by qualified health professionals; programs that integrate health and safety practices into school or athletic programs; programs that prevent bullying or harassment; mentoring and counseling for all students; establishing or improving dropout and reentry programs; high-quality training for school personnel in areas like suicide prevention and trauma-informed classroom management; school-based violence and drug abuse prevention; designing and implementing a “locally tailored” plan to reduce exclusionary discipline practices; and implementation of schoolwide positive behavioral intervention.

Effective use of technology

Districts are also required to use a portion of an SSAE grant to improve their use of technology in increasing academic achievement, growth, and digital literacy. While this section doesn’t have a minimum spending percentage, districts are not permitted to spend more than 15 percent of funds on purchasing technology infrastructure. Potential spending areas include: providing educators and administrators with professional learning tools, devices, and content to personalize learning for students and develop and share high-quality educational resources; building technological capacity and infrastructure by procuring content or purchasing devices and software; developing innovative strategies for delivering curricula using technology; implementing blended learning projects; providing professional development in the use of technology; and providing students in rural, remote, and underserved areas with digital learning experiences and access to online courses.

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By addressing—and funding—important aspects of education that fall outside the purview of reading and math, ESSA has the potential to set a new normal for what kids have the opportunity to learn. As with many other provisions in ESSA, the success of the SSAE grant will depend largely on states’ and districts’ creativity and commitment to student achievement. But if it’s done right, it could make kids healthier, more well-rounded, and more tech-friendly.


[1] According to ESSA, states are not permitted to use more than 1 percent of their allocation for administrative costs. This includes costs related to publicly reporting how districts spent SSAE funds and the degree to which districts made progress on their identified objectives and outcomes.

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Jessica Poiner is a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked as a high school English teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. While in Memphis, she taught for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District. A native of Ohio, Jessica holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Baldwin-Wallace University. 

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