Published Online: February 5, 1997


Title I Quirks Pit Well-to-do, Poor Schools

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San Rafael, Calif.

The federal program intended to counteract poverty's effects on student performance is hard at work here in the wealthiest county in America, just down the road from the Fidelity Investments branch office.

Meanwhile, across the Golden Gate Bridge in the heart of San Francisco, neighborhoods with three times the poverty rate--and no investment brokers in sight--don't get any help from the $6.7 billion Title I program.

"We have the poverty, and we should not be having to compete with suburbs," said Mary Welsh Byrd, the director of state and federal programs for the 64,000-student San Francisco Unified School District.

But Congress' method for distributing money under the huge Title I program does force poor schools to compete--against those in affluent areas like California's Marin County and against each other.

Despite the remedial education program's stated purpose of helping schools in poor areas boost achievement, critics contend the money is spread among too many districts to have a real impact in the places where poverty is most prevalent.

The nation's 20 wealthiest jurisdictions receive Title I grants ranging from $31,714 in Falls Church, Va., to $69.9 million in the Manhattan borough of New York City. Together, the top 20 get $138.7 million from Title I--about 2 percent of the total, according to federal census records and data from the U.S. Department of Education. (See "Rich Areas Get Richer.")

School officials here in Marin County, where per-capita income tops $28,000, say the area has hidden pockets of poverty and the student needs that go with them. For example, officials here point out, half the children in the tony waterfront town of Sausalito are on welfare.

Some of Title I's quirks are the result of political calculation. The rest spring from the complex mathematics written into the law's funding formula.

Marin County's 20 school districts will share $1.2 million in Title I money this year to serve the districts' 34,000 students. Just over 5 percent of the county's students come from families officially deemed to be living in poverty. San Francisco receives $11.9 million from Title I.

In Marin County, Title I provides an average of $663 for each student whose family is classified as poor. In San Francisco, the district averages $817 for each student living below the poverty line.

But the 1994 Title I law does not allow districts to simply assign the average amount to each poor student. The money runs out before all students are helped because the law stipulates that students in schools receiving Title I money get the district average plus 25 percent more. To decide which schools are worthy of the federal help, districts must rank buildings by poverty level. Then they start at the top of that list and stretch the money as far as they can.

In the end, some poor urban schools lose out. And when they do, they often complain about the well-to-do suburban schools that are winners.

In the Dixie school district in Marin County, the federal rules mean that one elementary school gets all of the district's federal aid. In San Francisco, meanwhile, the money runs out before all of the schools in poor neighborhoods can get a piece of the pie.

Pockets of Poverty

Marin County's Vallecito Elementary School is tucked in a neighborhood about a half mile from the Fidelity Investment branch here. Just over 4 percent of the children in the school come from families on welfare.

While that figure seems paltry compared with rates that hover around 20 percent in parts of San Francisco and nearby Oakland, poor children at Vallecito still struggle to keep up with their peers, according to officials in the 2,900-student, K-8 Dixie district.

"When you have a lot of high-end achievers, it's incumbent on a district to focus on kids that aren't doing so well," Thomas J. Lohwasser, the district's superintendent, said.

But critics say districts like Mr. Lohwasser's should be able to find their own way to pay for the remedial reading and mathematics instruction that Title I provides for about 7 million students throughout the country.

"There are a lot of places getting Title I money that could meet their own educational needs without this program," said Paul Steidler, a senior fellow at the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, an Arlington, Va., think tank that promotes free market solutions in public policy.

Others point out that students' learning problems in schools like the ones here in San Rafael are not as pervasive as in high-poverty cities.

"It's the predominance of poverty in a school that impacts achievement, rather than the individual poverty," said Mary Jean LeTendre, the Education Department's Title I director. "The poor kid who is attending a school that has very little poverty is going to do better than a rich kid who goes to a high-poverty school."

But when Congress tries to take away schools' funding--even schools in wealthy areas like Marin County--federal lawmakers quickly hear protests from local officials.

The 1994 law that reauthorized the Title I program forced Mr. Lohwasser of the Dixie district to spend his entire $36,561 grant at Vallecito Elementary, the school with the district's highest poverty rate. That meant he had to cut the after-school program in the district's other two elementary schools, which had been funded with Title I money. The superintendent said he could not find enough local or state money in his $10 million budget to continue the after-school services. "The program has really been missed," he said.

If the federal government permanently withdrew its $36,561 grant, the district would have to lay off the three part-time aides who work in Vallecito Elementary's classrooms, Mr. Lohwasser said.

S.F. Funds Fall Short

San Francisco school officials also consider the money necessary. Sixty-three of the city's 110 schools get Title I money.

Because the city's $11.9 million grant is not enough to cover all schools, some buildings where 14 percent of children's families subsist on welfare and 70 percent of the children qualify for free or reduced-priced meals are shut out of the program, according to district records.

At the E.R. Taylor Elementary School--where 77 percent of the students eat free or reduced-priced meals and nearly 19 percent are on the welfare rolls--the $209,000 Title I grant pays for a Reading Recovery program throughout the school, according to Christine W. Hiroshima, the school's principal.

While the school's Title I funding has been steady over the years, fluctuations in state and local budgets have forced Ms. Hiroshima to find creative ways to continue the reading program and still offer other services such as a school nurse.

"It's a struggle just to maintain your program every year," Ms. Hiroshima said. "It's really a dilemma ... whether we'll be able to provide the extra services."

But while Taylor Elementary has a thriving reading program because of Title I, Jefferson Elementary School in the Sunset neighborhood near Golden Gate Park, with a 14 percent poverty rate, gets no money from Title I.

Mission High School--where 515 of the 1,547 students are from families on welfare--doesn't get any money because the per-pupil grant would have taken away too much money from the lower grades, according to Ms. Byrd, the district's state and federal programs director.

As it is, 23 San Francisco elementary schools don't see any Title I money.

That scenario is common throughout inner city districts, a lobbyist for big-city schools said.

"It's kind of ludicrous that a school district with [low] poverty is getting money, and you have school districts with [high] poverty and they're not able to reach all their schools," said Jeff Simering, the legislative director for the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based group that represents the nation's large urban districts.

Gathering Votes

Whether schools like Marin County's Vallecito Elementary should continue to receive Title I money while some San Francisco schools go without has been the subject of intense debate in Washington for more than three years.

Plans to target the federal money on the poorest of the poor school districts may advance the goal of helping more poor children but it doesn't get votes needed for approval, especially in the House, where members closely track the federal money that flows into their home districts.

When House members voted on the bill to reauthorize Title I in 1994, they could check one of several computer printouts detailing how much money was due to go to their districts under the formula proposed in the bill.

If too many districts came up with zeros, the measure never would have passed, House aides said.

Instead, lawmakers passed the new formula, which includes a plan intended to target money toward urban areas like San Francisco and poor rural areas for appropriations that surpass the fiscal 1995 spending level. Even though Congress has raised Title I spending by more than $500 million since 1994, none of the cash has gone into the targeted formula.

Other changes barred from the program any district with fewer than 10 poor children or less than 2 percent of its enrollment in poverty.

Because well-off school districts receive so little money, the impact of those changes is "marginal," the Congressional Research Service said in an analysis of the 1994 law.

But in Marin County, the change, which took effect this school year, disqualified five districts that received about $10,000 last year.

In California's $708 million Title I grant, the changes kept about $1 million from wealthy districts.

Congress is making other small steps to steer more Title I money toward the poorest schools. Last year, lawmakers boosted the appropriation for the "concentration grant" portion of the formula from $684 million to almost $1 billion. Officials in Washington also raised the biggest part of Title I, the basic grants, by 2.5 percent.

Mr. Simering, who knows the realities of winning votes in Congress, said it is almost inevitable that districts in places like Marin County will continue to get a portion of Title I money.

"The hope is that you don't shower those that are substantially less needy with too much money," he said.

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