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The K-12 Compliance Conundrum

School districts face an uphill battle in the quest to remain compliant with ever-changing state and federal regulations. Is there an easy answer?

We hear a lot about what happens on the front lines of education. Exciting advancements in professional development, new instructional approaches, and the introduction of edtech into the classroom are just some of today's most popular discussion points. But what's going on behind the scenes to make all that innovation possible?

Schools are some of the most heavily regulated organizations in the country. No matter where your district is located, there are a lot of people and processes working in concert to ensure ongoing compliance, with both student requirements - from vaccination schedules to IEP management - and staff concerns, such as FMLA or teacher certification guidelines. 


It's no longer enough for technology firms to treat compliance as a programming issue. Watch the video to learn how meeting state and federal requirements is not all that different from baking a cake.


Even as the federal contribution percentage continues to rise, it still accounts for just a little over 10% of K-12 funding.

Accountability Reigns

To fully understand the scope of what it means for a school district to be "compliant," one must first become intimately familiar with the notion of accountability. That task begins and ends along the money trail. 

Although federal aid is often a lightning rod for debate, the overwhelming majority of public education funds come from state and local sources. In fact, even as the federal contribution percentage continues to rise, it still accounts for just a little over 10% of K-12 funding. This may come as a surprise to most, given the results of a recent Education Next poll on school reform, in which respondents indicated a belief that 32% of funding is coming from the federal level.

There’s no need to look far for an understanding of how accountability works at the local level. Annual budget discussions occur (or should) in a public forum and, often the democratic process forces school board members to scrutinize and justify expenditures to their community. The process is not always as transparent or efficient as it should be, but yet more often than not, voters ultimately get the final say.
No less an authority than the U.S. Constitution leaves the responsibility for K-12 education to the states. As a result, we see a wildly disparate gap in the amount of funding that gets allocated for education based on where you are in the country. In fact, average per-student spending over the past five years ranged from a little more than $6,000 (Utah) to just under $20,000 (New York). That’s a pretty significant difference, no matter how you slice it.

The funds that are ultimately divvied up to local education agencies (LEAs) depend on a number of variables that make up the state’s funding formula. This is where measurements like attendance percentage, free-and-reduced meal eligibility, and IEP hours come into play. Of course, with so much on the line, these formulae are dependent on timely and accurate data that the state doesn’t have access to on its own.

Just like that, we’re right back where we started on the topic of school district compliance. After all, how can the state make financial decisions based on district-level data without having a reliable system in place to retrieve those figures? The burden falls on school districts to collect that data, compile it, and meet a strict reporting schedule for submission to the relevant state agencies.

You have to use all of the ingredients that are already out on the counter, but you're not allowed to look up a recipe. Ready? Go.

Reporting Rigor

Setting funding formulae aside for the moment, it’s important to note that legislators are being pressured by their constituents to prove that the laws, standards, and financial measures being pushed through are actually moving the needle. In some states, this push for transparency has manifested itself in amazingly complex reporting systems that result in submission volumes well into the triple digits.
In the “old days,” this process was all about spreadsheets, data exports, and a complicated slew of systems that were rarely compatible with one another. One can only imagine the hours of tedium and built-in penchant for error that accompanied these manual processes.
Fortunately, modern enterprise technology in the form of SIS and ERP solutions has combined and automated many of these processes, giving district data managers the ability to extract the information they need in the format that the state is looking for.

The problem that many districts encounter is the sometimes-subjective way in which state reporting requirements can be interpreted. Imagine you’re standing in a kitchen and someone tells you that they want a cake. You have to use all of the ingredients that are already out on the counter, but you're not allowed to look up a recipe. Ready? Go.

It’s an oversimplified analogy, but it hits close enough to the mark. No matter how experienced your “bakers” are, the ingredients are constantly changing and new reports are being added every year. Throw in some tight deadlines and many-layered verification processes and you can understand why those tasked with maintaining compliance might feel a little overwhelmed during peak submission times.

If only we could stop there...
As public entities, districts must operate with open books and transparent purchasing processes, tacking on even more to the administrative load.

Beyond State Reports

Despite making up a relatively small percentage of funding, the federal government still needs to demonstrate that every dollar being pushed into the education system is accounted for and being spent the way it was intended. But the Department of Education is not the only stakeholder. Many other agencies, including the USDA and the IRS, have an interest in what goes on in our schools and each has its own process for collecting that data.
Speaking of the IRS, one of the primary concerns in district offices right now is another topic that doesn’t get a whole lot of press in the education circuit – we’re talking, of course, about the Affordable Care Act. Despite being passed into law way back in 2012, this is the first year that the ACA is being enforced with significant penalties for noncompliance. Given the frequency with which these requirements have changed (and will continue to change), many district leaders are finding themselves in the unenviable position of not even knowing where to start.
At the business level, school districts are treated no differently from any other medium- large employer. The same HR and accounting regulations that apply to your local grocery store also affect our school districts. As public entities, districts must operate with open books and transparent purchasing processes, tacking on even more to the administrative load.

So, compliance is a burden. What's the point? 

A Better Way

Transparency is a necessary component of democracy and we all know that big data isn’t going away anytime soon. It looks like school districts are just going to have to deal with it, right?
Cue the SIS and ERP providers once more. In a world where it’s not enough to simply supply the software and step back from the process, more and more school districts are paying close attention to the holistic user experience over just features and functionality.
If technology firms want to remain competitive in this environment, they need to look beyond reporting templates and programming rules. Without a dedicated team of state and federal compliance experts who are willing to step out on the front lines with district staff, these companies have no chance of remaining agile enough to meet deadlines and support their clients.

One of the easiest steps for an administrator to take is to review current support models with the teams (or – in smaller districts – the individuals) responsible for these tasks. Do you feel confident in your vendor’s ability to adapt to changes? Are you being offered timely training opportunities or a chance to talk things through with both peers and vendor staff? Are there any other resources made available to you to aid in the extraction, verification, and submission processes?
There’s a lot of money on the line here, to say nothing of your team’s sanity. “Partnership” may indeed be an overused buzzword in the edtech industry, but when it comes to state and federal compliance, that’s really what it takes to get the job done right.

Follow-Up Resource: State Reporting 

To learn more about Skyward's commitment to keeping its partners on-time, accurate, and compliant, visit our state reporting page or contact us today. 


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