Report: Feds “very concerned” with Indiana’s migrant program

Federal authorities came down hard on the Indiana Department of Education for its operation of the Migrant Education Program, an initiative aimed at making sure the children of migrant workers don’t fall behind as their families move from place to place.

A review of Indiana’s operation of the program suggests the state has failed to make effective use of millions of dollars intended to benefit migrant children. The review was conducted by the Office of Migrant Education in the U.S. Department of Education.

It says the department is “very concerned” with Indiana’s failure to comply with requirements of the program and its inability to make use of federal funds. As of this past fall, the state had not drawn down any of the money it received in fiscal year 2010 or 2011. It was still operating the program on money awarded in fiscal 2009, raising questions about whether it was providing services at a level expected.

And the funding has been significant. According to information from the U.S. Department of Education press office, Indiana has been awarded $23.4 million over the past four years to run the migrant program — $6.4 million in 2009, $5.7 million in 2010, $5.7 million in 2011 and $5.5 million in 2012.

Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post reported this news and provided a link to the federal review this month in her “Answer Sheet” column. Charles Wilson of the Associated Press in Indianapolis followed up this week.

Indiana Department of Education spokeswoman Katie Stephens told School Matters that the state is aware of the issues and is committed to improving its administration of the program. She said Indiana is working with the U.S. Department of Education and other Midwestern states to develop a program that does a better job of identifying, tracking and serving migrant families.

“While the state has not misused the funds, we are committed to ensuring faster allocation of resources to our migrant families who need them,” she said.

Stephens added that problems with the program pre-dated the current administration of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett. A previous review in 2007 also faulted the state, and Indiana returned $2.7 million in unspent Migrant Education Program funds to the U.S. Treasury in 2007.

The federal review, while written in careful bureaucratic language, raises questions about whether the state overlooked migrant education while Bennett pushed the understaffed Department of Education to pursue other priorities. Only one DOE employee was dedicated exclusively to the Migrant Education Program year-round, and the report strongly encourages Indiana to bolster staffing.

Other findings include:

— Indiana has had no written evaluation to measure the program’s implemention and results, a problem that carried over from the 2007 review.

— With so few staff charged with identifying and recruiting eligible students, children sometimes were in the state two or three months before being offered services.

— Reporting processes were not well established and the state neglected to monitor the performance of school districts that provide services to migrants.

The report also says some of the state’s data seem questionable. For example, the number of migrant children found to be eligible declined from more than 7,000 in 2007 to around 1,000 this year. It may be, as the state says, that fewer migrants are traveling with families. It’s also possible that this year’s drought reduced the number of farm workers. Still, that’s an awfully big drop in just five years.

The timing of the federal review may seem awkward, as Bennett is leaving office at the end of the year and being replaced by Glenda Ritz. Indiana should currently be in the process of submitting its improvement plans to the feds. If progress is indeed being made on this issue, let’s hope it continues and accelerates.

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