Education Opinion

The Problem with Backpacks

By Sara Mead — June 04, 2012 3 min read

Plenty of other people have written smart or at least interesting things about the Romney education plan, and I’m not sure I have that much to add, other than that, like Andy, I think the higher ed stuff is a lot more problematic, both as policy and politics, than the K-12 stuff.

But I do think it’s worth spending a second on Romney’s proposals to make Title I and IDEA funds follow kids to the providers of their choice--not because I think this proposal is likely to be realized anytime soon, but because there are some real tensions between the idea of a funding “backpack” that follows kids to the provider of their choice, and some other really important considerations in how Title I and IDEA funds are distributed.

Consider Title I: Romney wants to allow a child to take his or her share of Title I funds to another school, or to a supplemental service provider. Ok, then. But what is a child’s share of Title I funds? Title I funds are allocated to school districts under a formula designed to target greater amounts of funding to districts with higher concentrations of children in poverty--in recognition that higher concentrations of poverty increase educational challenges exponentially. The shift of more Title I funding into the most targeted formula over the past decade is a major victory for education reform equity and improved use of public funds. But that also means that there isn’t a single Title I funding amount per poor child. So how, practically speaking, would one go about allocating Title I funds to individual children? Would policies designed to do that actually require breaking the entire targeting mechanism? And would that ultimately hurt more poor kids than it helps?

Consider also IDEA: Romney again wants to allow children with disabilities to take federal special ed funds to a school or provider of their choice--essentially a watered down version of Florida’s McKay special ed voucher program, which voucher advocates have been pressing to replicate in states nationally. It’s no secret that I have a lot of concerns about special ed-only vouchers, including perverse incentives and a total lack of accountability or protection for our most vulnerable students’ rights in many of these programs. But leaving those aside, there’s also a basic funding system design issue here. For McKay-like models to work, states need to use special education finance systems that assign a specific dollar amount to each kid or category of kids based on diagnosis and intensity of services required, so that kids can then carry that amount with them to whichever school they choose to attend. The problem here is that we know this isn’t actually the best way to fund special ed at a state or systems level--because these systems create perverse incentives to over-enroll kids in special ed. A better way to fund special ed is through lump sum or census systems that allocate special education funds to schools based on their total population of students served, complemented by insurance pools that cover the whole cost for students with high-cost/low-incidence needs. And smart federal policy would use IDEA funds as a lever to move states towards such systems. But these systems are not compatible with “backpacking” special education funds at the individual child level.

Over the last decade or so, the idea of “fund the child” and of those funds following the child among various providers of choice has gained traction in ed reform debates--with good reason. But there are also tensions between the idea of making funds follow the child and other important goals and considerations of school funding systems. That doesn’t mean we can’t do a much better job of building school financing systems that allow funds to follow children while also targeting resources to high-poverty students and mitigating incentives for special education overenrollment. But the first step in smart policy design is recognizing tensions that exist and being explicit about them, and current debates about school choice or follow the child--and the Romney plan in particular--don’t really do that.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook 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.

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