Indiana never spent millions of dollars the federal government provided to help make sure the children of migrant workers get a good education, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Education.
The federal government awarded the state a total of about $12 million for fiscal years 2010 and 2011, but the Indiana Department of Education didn't claim the grants, the report obtained this week by The Associated Press says.
Federal officials who reviewed Indiana's program in March expressed concern in the report that the state wasn't spending enough to ensure that migrant children receive adequate schooling in spite of their families' frequent moves.
A state's ability to serve migrant children "is directly related to the extent to which it can fully and effectively implement the requirements of the program and expend MEP fund," the report said. "Knowing this, [the Education Department] is very concerned about IDOE's failure to comply with a number of MEP requirements and its inability to expend MEP funds in accordance with the 27-month window of availability."
The report said Indiana has downsized the staff for finding children for the program so much that the state can no longer do the job. The state program has a staff of four and employs five seasonal workers to recruit children for the program. Federal officials recommended the program hire additional staff.
State Department of Education spokeswoman Stephanie Sample said Wednesday that Indiana received about $22.7 million for the years 2007 to 2009, and returned about $3.9 million. The rest was spent on migrant programs, she said. She said the reason the state didn't spend all the grant money was that the award is based on the number of migrant students in 2001, when the state had many more.
"There is no flexibility in how the funds are used. Any funding the state does not use to support education for migrant families goes back to the federal treasury," Sample said in an email.
School districts apply for the money and are reimbursed by the state with grant funds, Sample said.
She said migrant families tend to stay in Indiana from April through September or October, which "makes them hard to track, because they aren't in our state during the traditional school year."
About 73 percent of the families migrate from Texas, Georgia and Florida, and most of the remainder come from Mexico, the report said. Migrant families often work in fields growing corn, tomatoes, apples, watermelon, asparagus and cucumbers.
The report said the number of children eligible for Indiana's program has dwindled from 7,000 to 1,000 since 2007, a decline the state believes resulted from employers hiring workers without families or local seasonal workers, families settling, the lingering economic downturn and increased enforcement of immigration laws.
The Sept. 28 report also said the state needs to improve the program's plan and other documentation and should take steps to make sure migrant children were counted correctly. The report said state education officials rely too heavily on schools' counts, which include only children who are already enrolled and miss those who don't already go to school.
The U.S. Department of Education told the state to take corrective measures within 75 days. Sample said that response is due by Dec. 28, and the state expects to meet that deadline. Without corrective measures, the federal department said it might place conditions on the state's 2013 grant.
Another state spokeswoman, Katie Stephens, said Indiana's education agency is working with the federal government and other Midwestern states to develop a more efficient program.
"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.