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Political Winds Are Buffeting Popular Title I

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For years, Title I has enjoyed the kind of bipartisan support that allows a program to weather financial and political peaks and valleys on Capitol Hill.

Thanks in large measure to a funding formula that pumps some money into the vast majority of school districts, the 30-year-old effort to improve the education of disadvantaged students is one of the most popular federal education programs.

But its supporters fear that popularity might not be enough to see the flagship program of the Elementary and Secondary Education ACT through the budget-cutting storm now raging in Washington.

Republicans, who control both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years, have made slashing the size and power of the federal government, balancing the budget, and cutting taxes the focal points of their agenda.

And Title I is facing a level of uncertainty unknown since 1981, when President Reagan sought to eliminate the Department of Education and replace virtually all its precollegiate programs with a block grant.

"People need to understand that what they've taken for granted is under attack," said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a Washington-based lobbying coalition representing some 80 education groups.

"Throughout the years, Title I has gone up and down, and the gloom and doom arises every four or five years," said Mel Mobley, the Title I coordinator for the Omaha, Neb., public schools. "But now we are feeling the pressure."

Budget Cuts

The most imminent threat is in fiscal 1996 budget bills that would slash Title I spending as much as 17 percent. The appropriations bill endorsed by the House would cut $1.1 billion from the 1995 spending level of $6.6 billion, and the companion bill pending in the Senate would cut $679 million.

Title I spending has generally maintained an upward curve for three decades. The program endured some funding cuts during the early years of the Reagan administration, which had proposed cuts of up to 50 percent in some years. But thanks to bipartisan support in Congress, the cuts never exceeded 6.7 percent in any one year.

Between 1981 and 1989, the years Mr. Reagan was in office, funding actually increased by more than 50 percent, and it rose even more sharply under President Bush.

President Clinton has vigorously vowed to fight the education cuts, and his veto power may save Title I from drastic reductions. But educators are bracing for the worst.

Howard Lewis, the Title I coordinator for the Buffalo public schools, estimates that his district would lose $3 million of its current $21 million allocation under the House spending bill. More than 2,000 of the roughly 10,000 students who receive Title I services would be cut out of the program, and 20 teachers would lose their jobs, he said. Moreover, a widely praised Title I parents' center would be threatened.

"These kinds of things will disappear," Mr. Lewis said.

Moreover, some observers say the new budgetary climate may beget another round of congressional squabbling over the Title I funding formula, which was rewritten last year to target only new spending above 1995 levels to the neediest districts

The sThe House subcommittee with jurisdiction over education spending, for example, suggested in a report accompanying its 1996 budget bill that the law be changed to allow funding shifts without funding increases. (See Education Week, Oct. 25, 1995.)

"I would be surprised if [Congress] were not forced to go back and look at formula issues because of the appropriations," said Christopher T. Cross, the chairman of a new independent review panel for Title I.

That would set the stage for a renewed battle between lawmakers who favor concentrated funding for the poorest districts and colleagues whose constituents would see their schools lose money under such a policy. And, while a formula change might benefit some needy schools, observers fear that such a change--and the battle itself--could further weaken Title I's once-broad base of support.

New Crop

That support has already been weakened, Title I advocates say, by the 1994 elections, which brought a new crop of lawmakers to Capitol Hill. There are 73 Republican freshmen in the House and nine new GOP senators, and many of them were elected after promising to cut federal programs.

"We feel a lot of members of Congress are new, and they don't have historical connections to the program," said Alice Gibson, Ohio's Title I coordinator. "It's up to us to make some new connections and to show that the program does work."

Some of those House freshmen have already introduced a bill that would eliminate the Department of Education and include Title I in a massive block grant. (See Education Week, May 31, 1995.)

"The whole philosophy behind our bill is getting control over education programs back to parents and local communities," said Gary Lindgren, a spokesman for Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, one of its sponsors.

Aides say they are working with House leaders to lay the groundwork for consideration of the measure next year, as the presidential election approaches. In addition, Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the chairman of the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee, is working on his own block-grant plan.

Meanwhile, other lawmakers have proposed voucher demonstration programs using Title I money. It is unclear whether Congress will vote on a Title I voucher bill before next year's elections.

Does It Work?

In one respect, Title I's long history may hurt its survival prospects. Most research has found only small achievement gains among Title I students, and lawmakers have begun citing that research in calling for funding cuts.

Title I has lost favor in Congress "because the program doesn't work," contended Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a clearinghouse on state education-reform activities that promotes such ideas as vouchers and privatization.

Most notably, preliminary data from a groundbreaking longitudinal study financed by the Education Department suggest that Title I has done little to close the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers. (See Education Week, Nov. 24, 1993.)

Further data from the "Prospects" study are due to be forwarded to Congress in January, and the final report is due in early 1997. The independent review panel headed by Mr. Cross, which was established by Congress to monitor implementation of Title I, is also due to release a report in January.

Ironically, supporters of Title I have been citing the same research for years in pushing for changes in the law.

"It is perverse that people are making that argument for destroying the program when others have made that argument for reforming the program and have specific ideas for the reforms," said William Taylor, a lawyer who advised an independent commission that released an influential report on the program in 1992.

Lawmakers took the first step in 1988, by requiring schools whose Title I students did not meet achievement goals to enter a "program improvement" process that could lead to intervention by state officials.

However, while thousands of schools were targeted, the process was widely criticized for setting too low a standard, focusing too much on standardized tests, and allowing many poorly performing schools to avoid making significant changes in their programs. (See Education Week, March 25, 1992.)

When Title I was reauthorized in 1994, Congress required states and school districts to set challenging academic standards and accompanying assessments that are to form the basis of an improved accountability system.

Other changes are designed to encourage schools to use their funding on a schoolwide basis, rather than pulling individual students out of class for instruction, and even combine Title I money with other federal aid. (See Education Week, Oct. 12, 1994.)

Most Title I programs focus on remedial mathematics and reading instruction. School districts can also use Title I money for parental involvement activities, coordinating social services, and professional development.

Long-Term Reform

Some Title I supporters maintain that the program is healthier than it has ever been. They cite the recent changes, which have been widely praised by educators.

While there is "a reason for concern" about Title I's future, said Bruce Hunter, the senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, "for me, it's kind of a low-level concern."

"For me, the program and the people who do the work have never been healthier. And we have a much better law," he said. "So there's no reason to go along with a real long face."

However, assessment experts say it will take years to gauge whether the programmatic changes have accomplished their goal, and lawmakers may not wait that long.

"It could be five to 10 years before we see detectable changes in student learning," said Ramsay Selden, the director of the education-statistics service of the Washington-based American Institutes for Research.

"I think one of the things people are worried about is having to show results for continuation of the program," he said. "I agree. That's worrisome."

Moreover, Jeff Simering, the legislative director for the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington group that represents large urban districts, said many inner-city schools have not been engaged in the academic-standards movement that the new reforms are based on.

"Most of my cities, which run the biggest Title I programs in the country, have not been active in the standards-setting and assessment-setting process at the state level," Mr. Simering said. "That is happening in some states, but for the most part that has been an inside game."

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