Education Opinion

A Question of Federal Overreach: Strange Bedfellows and Red Herrings

By James E. Ryan — August 17, 2016 4 min read
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A weird kerfuffle erupted this past spring about the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The question, legally, concerns the Education Secretary’s authority to issue regulations implementing the new law, which is the latest incarnation of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The heart of this legislation is Title I, which provides funding to schools with poor kids on the theory that poorer kids have greater needs and require more resources to address those needs. In essence, the more poor kids in the school, the more funding the schools are supposed to get--at least in theory.

A problem from the beginning has been the temptation on the part of states and local districts to use federal funding to cover costs that local and state funding would have covered already. Here’s an overly simple and imaginary example to show what I mean. Imagine you run a school district and last year, before you got any federal funding, you started an art class in a very poor elementary school. When federal funding comes through this year, it should be used in that elementary school to pay for something other than that art class. Otherwise, the federal funding is not providing the intended additional resources to students; it is simply helping states and localities save money. It goes without saying that the federal funding should definitely not be used to let you take local funding away from poorer schools and give it to richer schools--so you should not even think about using the federal funding for the art class and then sending the local money that you saved from the poor elementary school to a more affluent school to buy them new band uniforms.

An easy solution would be to insist that all schools within the same district spend exactly the same amount of state and local funds per pupil if they want also to receive federal funding. Then you know, easy as pie, whether the federal funding is being used on top of local and state funding. But because there are legitimate reasons for costs to vary from school to school, this is not a fair or reasonable approach. Absent a clear rule like this, the federal government has instead adopted a principle of “supplement, not supplant,” meaning that federal funds should enable states and localities to do more in poorer schools than they otherwise would have. This, however, has proven a difficult principle to implement, because it is not always easy to tell what states and localities would have done if there were no federal funding.

What Education Secretary John King is trying to draw attention to is the fact that local districts often spend more on schools with more affluent kids than they do on schools with poorer kids, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes for not such good reasons.

One big reason districts spend more on more affluent schools is because they spend more on teachers in those schools, and this is the heart of the controversy stirred up by Secretary King. The more affluent schools often spend more on teachers because the teachers in those schools are more experienced and, because of their union contracts, they get paid a higher amount based on their seniority. And part of the reason the more experienced teachers are in more affluent schools is because those teachers, again based on union contracts, get first dibs on the schools where they want to teach, and most teachers choose schools with fewer poor kids. This may be oversimplifying a bit, but that is the basic reality.

So the teachers unions sided with Republicans in Congress to oppose what they saw as overreaching by Secretary King. These strange bedfellows found common cause because the Republicans want to limit federal power, and the unions want to preserve existing contracts. The red herrings began swimming when critics of John King criticized him (and President Obama) for calling the original ESEA a “civil rights law,” as if that somehow matters legally to the question of its interpretation and the scope of Secretary King’s authority. It doesn’t.

Whether spending more on teacher salaries in more affluent schools is good policy is a matter of considerable debate, and reasonable people can (and do) disagree. On the one hand, you could argue that paying more to teachers with more experience, and giving them first choice among schools where they work, is crucial to teacher retention. On the other hand, this is a classic “the rich get richer” tale, and it is also a source of temptation for local districts to use some federal funding that should be helping poor schools to instead help pay for the higher teacher salaries in the more affluent schools.

More fundamentally, this policy raises a question of basic fairness. To me, the key question, yet to be fully answered, is this: If we care about the equitable treatment of poor students, what is the justification of allowing schools with fewer poor students to get more money--in the form of higher teacher salaries--from states and localities? I can see how this benefits experienced teachers, of course, but it is harder to see how it benefits poor students.

And if this is the point that Secretary King is trying to make--that the law as it is currently implemented is not doing enough to help poor kids, which was clearly the point of the law in the first place--then more power to him.

The opinions expressed in Making the Case: Key Questions in Education Debates are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.