Omnibus spending bill secures $700 million increase in Title IV funding for schools

by Great Falls Tribune, Sarah Dettmer

Concern for local students’ mental health has prompted a $700 million increase in federal Title IV-A Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants across the country.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., penned a letter to Senate leadership in February after reading a Tribune article about the sobering teen mental health statistics in Great Falls Public School’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey. In his letter, Tester urged the Senate Appropriations Committee to consider increased prioritization and investment into Title IV grants to help schools meet their students’ mental health needs.

The $1.3 trillion spending bill for Fiscal Year 2018, signed by President Donald Trump on March 23, increased Title IV grant funding to $1.1 billion. The Fiscal Year 2017 funding for these grants was $400 million.

The budget also clarified that schools can use the grants to include crisis management and violence prevention training.

A recent survey in one of Montana’s largest school districts showed that in the last year, a full quarter of high school students seriously considered committing suicide, Tester said in his letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee. “That situation is not unusual or unique – students across Montana are struggling to overcome the impacts of trauma, abuse, substance abuse and endemic poverty in their family’s lives. They bring these burdens with them into the classroom, where they struggle to learn.”

Title IV funds, under the Every Student Succeeds Act, include a federal block grant program called Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants. These grants are intended to help schools meet three key goals:

Providing students with a well-rounded education
Supporting safe and healthy students
Supporting the effective use of technology
Funding for these grants is divided among states and then further divided among school districts by state offices of public instruction. In Montana, the funds are distributed equally among the districts regardless of size or number of students.

This year, Great Falls Public Schools received $10,054 in Title IV funds. The increase could equate to almost three times as much money, with approximately $30,000 going to each district.

However, the Montana Office of Public Instruction is considering a change in how these funds are allocated. Instead of splitting the pot equally, OPI is considering a competitive grant application program that would give local districts an opportunity to secure more significant Title IV funding.

“We would definitely welcome any additional funds,” GFPS Superintendent Tammy Lacey said. “We would probably use the money to offset other cuts in federal funds and utilize it for additional student support. We would look at using it to increase student safety and resources.”

Lacey said she is a fan of switching to a competitive grant process because the current allocation system “doesn’t move the needle on major initiatives.”

Representatives from OPI said they are waiting to see what portion of the new Title IV funds will make it to Montana before they officially determine if it makes sense to continue the formula method or move to a competitive process.

“We’re so appreciative that Senator Tester recognized the need in Great Falls and probably also the need across Montana,” Lacey said. “To advocate for these needs is admirable.”