Evaluation of Delaware's Opportunity Funding and Student Success Block Grant Programs

Early Implementation

by Sy Doan, Heather L. Schwartz, Daniella Henry, Lynn A. Karoly

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Research Questions

  1. What does existing research suggest is most effective for improving the outcomes of LI, EL, and special education students?
  2. How much Opportunity Fund and SSBG monies did LEAs expend?
  3. What investments did they propose to make with their Opportunity Fund and SSBG resources during the 2019–2020 school year? How successful were LEAs in implementing their original proposals?
  4. How did LEAs adapt their Opportunity Fund and SSBG investments for remote learning during COVID-19?
  5. What did LEA leaders perceive as the most effective uses of the Opportunity Fund and SSBG during the 2019–2020 school year?

This report is the first of three annual reports evaluating the implementation and effects of two newly expanded Delaware weighted education funding programs, the Opportunity Fund and the Student Success Block Grant (SSBG). The Opportunity Fund provides two streams of financial support — a flexible fund for local education agencies (LEAs) to fund staff, curricula, or services that serve low-income (LI) and English learner (EL) students and a second fund for either mental health supports or reading supports for high-need schools. The SSBG also provides two streams — one offering funding to LEAs based on the number of K–3 basic special education enrollees and a second that covers the hiring of reading interventionists at high-need elementary schools.

The authors examine Opportunity Fund and SSBG programs implementation and emerging best practices according to LEA leaders in 2019–2020. Specifically, they examine how LEAs planned to use the funds and how they were actually used; expenditures under the funding mechanisms; and LEA leaders' reported barriers to implementing their plans and best practices for serving EL, LI, and special education students.

The report will be of interest to Delaware state-level policymakers in the executive and legislative branches, including Delaware Department of Education and legislative staff, as well as other stakeholders in the public and private sectors interested in the potential for strategic investments in the early elementary grades to improve student outcomes. The findings should be of interest to policymakers in other parts of the United States who are considering or making similar investments.

Key Findings

  • Participation in Opportunity Fund and SSBG programs was high. Forty of 41 Delaware LEAs applied for and received flexible Opportunity Fund monies.
  • Although initial allocations for the flexible Opportunity Fund and SSBG K–3 basic special education funding programs were made equitably on a per-pupil basis, the actual fiscal year 2020 per-pupil amounts that LEAs expended differed substantially based on which investments LEAs made, how much of their allocation they left unspent, and differences across LEAs in pay scale and experience levels for staff hires.
  • The most frequent proposed use of both Opportunity Fund and SSBG monies was to hire new staff.
  • As of April 2020, LEAs reported that 71 percent of their 185 total proposed flexible Opportunity Fund investments were fully implemented.
  • LEAs left 30 percent of Opportunity Fund FY 2020 mental health allocations unspent by the end of the year.
  • The Opportunity Fund mental health program had greater inequality in allocated funding across qualifying schools because LEA applications drove the per-school allocated amounts.
  • Charter school LEAs spent down their flexible Opportunity Funds and SSBG K–3 allocations more fully than did traditional public school districts.
  • LEA leaders were mostly likely to cite new staff and additional PD as the investments they perceived as most effective for improving academic outcomes among LI, EL, and special education students.
  • Despite COVID-19, most LEAs continued to use their Opportunity Fund and SSBG investments during spring 2020, modifying some staff roles to better serve students and families via remote learning.

Recommendations

  • The DDOE should work with LEAs to identify barriers to implementing investments to fully expend their allocations in ways that benefit student achievement — particularly in those LEAs that are leaving the largest share of the funds unspent. These are often the same LEAs across several of the four programs.
  • Because of a program design that leaves room for greater variability in per-school allocations, the DDOE should revisit the mental health Opportunity Fund program to ensure that those funds are equitably distributed.
  • The DDOE should investigate LEAs' barriers to expending the SSBG special education funding, given that many investments were focused on hiring staff, and there is no shortage of certificated special education teachers in Delaware. Also, LEA leaders reported that the purchase of supplies was an effective investment for special education services in particular, yet LEAs were relatively infrequently listing these investments in their applications.
  • Delaware certification programs should seek to expand recruitment of candidates for social workers, school psychologists, and other shorthanded certifications fields, given LEA leaders' perceptions of the effectiveness of these services and the likely continued focus on mental health and SEL services, especially in the wake of COVID-19.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was funded by the Delaware Department of Education (DDOE) and conducted by RAND Education and Labor.

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