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With Funding Vote, Congress Undoes Title I Solution

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Washington

In 1994, Congress searched for--and eventually identified--a way to adjust the formula for distributing Title I money to compensate for increases or decreases in school districts' child-poverty rates.

This year, Congress effectively undermined that solution. Under a fiscal 1998 appropriations bill passed shortly before lawmakers left Washington last month, the path that money from the largest federal K-12 program follows into district coffers will be essentially unchanged next year, regardless of whether they are experiencing a population boom or bust.

Mary Jean LeTendre

"Basically, local education agencies will be getting the same amount of money" next year as they did in fiscal 1997, said Mary Jean LeTendre, the director of the Department of Education office that administers the $8 billion program for schools serving a significant proportion of disadvantaged students.

Congress avoided the dramatic change in how it allocates Title I money by writing a 100 percent "hold harmless" provision into the law that appropriates $7.4 billion for the local-grants section of the program.

That means that no district that continues to qualify for Title I's basic and concentration grants in fiscal 1998, which began Oct. 1, will suffer a cut in its share of the funding. Congress could renew the provision for fiscal 1999.

Sen. Tom Harkin

Because Congress appropriated only an additional $100 million for Title I in fiscal 1998--or slightly more than 1 percent of the fiscal 1997 local grant total--there won't be much new money to spread among schools that have had sudden increases in the number of poor children they serve even if some districts drop out of the program.

"It's not enough to do anything," said Charles R. Russell, the assistant for federal relations to the Texas commissioner of education. "This just keeps delaying" the eventual impact of population shifts, he said.

Texas is one of the states that lobbied hardest for the population updates during Title I's reauthorization in 1994, but the recent poverty estimates show the state's population of poor children hasn't grown as fast as the national average.

Data Change

In the debate over Title I amendments during the 1994 reauthorization, Congress sought to distribute the money based on the most recent reliable data available. Before then, the Education Department relied on the most recent full count of the U.S. population taken in the first year of every decade. That meant, for example, that Title I grants in 1990 were made based on data collected 10 years earlier.

The 1994 law instructed the departments of Education and Commerce to hire a panel of statistical experts to evaluate the quality of U.S. Census estimates collected four years after the most recent national head count.

But so far, Congress has blocked any shift of money that would have resulted from the new numbers.

For the current fiscal year, Iowa stood to be one of the biggest Title I losers if the Education Department decided to rely on 1994 data instead of 1990 numbers. But Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, used his post on the Senate Appropriations Committee to blunt the impact of the latest census data.

If not for the 100 percent hold-harmless language in the spending bill, Iowa would have lost $4 million of its Title I funding, according to a press release issued by Sen. Harkin. In addition to preserving Title I money, the senator took credit for $16 million in education funding earmarked for his state and included elsewhere in the annual appropriations bill for the departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services. ("Feds Serve Up Education 'Pork' in Fiscal 1998," This Week's News.)

Second Intervention

That was the second time this year that Congress intervened to ease the pain of a transition toward the use of 1994 data in Title I.

Last spring, the departments of Education and Commerce, following the process set in the 1994 law, accepted a recommendation of a panel of statistical experts that data from 1990 and 1994 be averaged when calculating the program's grants for the 1997-98 school year. Those grants are funded from federal appropriations for fiscal year 1997.

The decision made mathematical sense to the statisticians and educational sense to the federal officials interested in seeing the neediest districts win their fair share of the money.

Political Considerations

But it didn't satisfy political needs. Thirty-two states would have fared worse with the 1994 plan than they would have if the departments relied on the 1990 data alone. ("Panel Votes To Boost Title I Aid to 32 States," May 7, 1997.)

Led by the Senate Appropriations Committee, Congress pumped an extra $101 million into a midyear bill to make up for half of each state's losses.

The subsequent vote to add hold-harmless language will prevent the need for such intervention again. Even though the statisticians are evaluating the 1994 child-poverty data for accuracy, what the Commerce and Education department officials decide to do with it is almost moot at this point.

"It makes for smooth continuity for most," Ms. LeTendre said of the hold-harmless provision. The only districts that will suffer are those that lose Title I eligibility because they now serve too few poor students. The provision will not protect them, Ms. LeTendre said.

Each year, districts seeking Title I dollars must report to the Education Department on the number of disadvantaged students they serve. A district must enroll at least 10 disadvantaged students, and its enrollment of poor children must make up at least 2 percent of its total enrollment to qualify for the program's basic grants. To win a concentration grant, a district must have at least 6,500 children living in poverty, or 15 percent of its student enrollment must come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

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