Districts Scurry To Play by New Rules for Title I

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A wide cultural and geographic chasm separates Mobile, Ala., a Gulf Coast city where 86 public schools serve some 65,000 students, and the Lower Kuskokwim River region of Alaska, an Ohio-size tract of wilderness where 22 of the 23 communities have only one small school apiece, with student populations ranging from 10 to 190.

But the new Title I compensatory-education law is producing similar results in the two districts this year, as some schools have been forced out of the federal program while other ones have been added.

Meanwhile, however, school districts in Palm Beach County, Fla., Oil City, Pa., and elsewhere have avoided such drastic shifts by obtaining waivers under new authority granted to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley in the same law that mandated the changes in Title I. Some observers say the waiver authority has allowed districts to bypass the intent of the new law.

"The districts are in transition," said Mary Taylor, a senior research associate at RMC Research Corporation in Denver who has studied the implementation of the new law in 10 Western school districts.

"I think the reality is they spent 30 years designing programs that met the old guidelines," she said. "There's going to be a certain amount of resistance to saying, `OK, we're going to play by the new rules.' It's not so much foot-dragging as it is having been used to doing things a certain way."

The Title I changes, embodied in the Elementary and Secondary Education act reauthorization enacted last year, went into effect July 1. The new law calls on states and school districts to establish challenging academic standards and accompanying assessments that will be used to measure the progress of Title I students. (See Education Week, Oct. 12, 1994.)

Waiver Friendly

The law also requires districts to rank schools according to poverty rates and fund them in that order, and, in some cases, sets minimum funding levels for high-poverty schools. In the past, districts had more discretion to select schools based on educational achievement or grade level. The new law has forced many districts to shift funding from elementary schools to middle schools and high schools, or to serve fewer schools. (See Education Week, June 21, 1995.)

The waiver provisions were intended to spur innovative uses of funds under all ESEA programs. But 107 of the 185 waiver requests the Department of Education had received as of Dec. 6 concerned Title I provisions, and most came from districts that wanted exemptions from the targeting rules. Of the 107 requests, the department has approved 77, denied 11, and is considering 19.

"We've been flexible this year because it's a new law and it's a transitional year," Bill Kincaid, a special assistant to Undersecretary of Education Marshall S. Smith, told state and local education officials last week at a conference here on the new Title I law.

The Palm Beach County district was the first to request and receive a waiver. Like most districts, Palm Beach had focused Title I money on the elementary and middle grades. Anticipating that five large high schools would qualify for Title I under the new ranking rules, district officials asked to delay serving them for one year.

Grade-Level Shifts

That gives the high schools time to plan and the district a chance to mitigate the impact on elementary schools, said Raul R. Iribarren, the district's director of federal programs.

In Mobile, however, three large high-poverty high schools have claimed about $1 million of the district's Title I budget of $15.7 million, said Leo Brown, the district's Title I director. Not only has it knocked 10 elementary schools out of the program, he added, but it has also reduced funds for the elementary schools still being served.

"The money is going to personnel. Schools have had to cut back services," he said.

"I philosophically believe the earlier you reach children, the more good you do," Mr. Brown added. "The new law has taken money from programs that were working for children and put them into a new area. Good intentions, and I understand it, but it doesn't always work out."

In Birmingham, Ala., 263 miles up Interstate 65, the Title I allocation for high-poverty middle schools has doubled from $1 million to $2 million for the current school year. That has meant a transfer of 40 paraprofessionals from elementary schools to middle schools, said Joan Buckley, the district's director of federal programs.

"We don't like the fact that we need to give up some early-intervention programs," Ms. Buckley said. "I think it is quite patronizing to urban districts."

Poverty Rates

Some districts requested waivers in order to continue Title I programs in schools whose poverty rates are not high enough to qualify for the program under the new rules. Under those rules, schools with the highest poverty rates must be served first; other eligible schools must have a poverty rate that meets or exceeds the districtwide average. Exceptions can be made only for schools where more than 35 percent of the children are poor.

For example, if the Oil City Area School District in Pennsylvania had not received a waiver, Title I funds would have been cut off to Oakland Elementary School because its 26 percent poverty rate falls below the district rate of 35 percent. The school served 55 disadvantaged students in 1994-95.

At the same time, Alaska's Lower Kuskokwim district this year dropped four schools from Title I and began new service in five others as a result of the ranking requirements. Of the 25 schools in the rural district, whose students are mostly Yup'ik Indians, 22 have poverty rates of at least 80 percent. The district is only serving schools where the poverty rate is at least 91 percent.

Nora Hernandez, the district's director of staff development and special programs, is afraid that more upheaval could occur next year. Some schools are so small, and the area is so predominantly poor, she said, that the movement of one family from one village to another could change the rankings.

Skirting the Intent?

Some critics say the waivers allow districts to skirt the intent of the law: focusing more funds on the schools with the most poor students. Phyllis C. McClure, a Washington education consultant and a veteran advocate for disadvantaged children, said that she had only seen two waiver requests focused on educational achievement and reform.

Department officials "clearly felt they had to approve some of them to prove they're being flexible," Ms. McClure said. "On the other hand, they turned down some. They weren't letting people off scot-free."

The ESEA requires districts applying for a waiver to declare how it would improve student achievement and the quality of instruction. But it gives the Education Department broad discretion in deciding which requests to approve.

When asked at the Title I conference what kinds of waiver requests the department would encourage, Mr. Kincaid said those decisions are up to districts. The waiver process, he said, "is designed to help let you use federal programs in such a way as to support the reforms you have going."

Waiver requests are not weighed according to "cookie-cutter criteria," Undersecretary Smith said in an interview. "We have a set of principles."

The waiver requests that were denied generally involved districts that wanted to continue serving schools with low poverty rates and failed to point out the educational benefit of the proposed waiver.

The Fort Zumwalt district in O'Fallon, Mo., for example, asked for a three-year waiver to continue serving two elementary schools with poverty rates below its districtwide average of 10.5 percent. The two schools, along with the seven elementary schools that are still eligible, had received Title I money for the past 13 years.

In a letter informing the district that its request had been denied, Mr. Smith noted that the two ineligible schools "have poverty levels significantly below several of the district's eligible schools." The other schools have poverty rates ranging from 10.5 percent to 23.4 percent.

Schoolwide Projects

It is still unclear how many districts nationwide were affected by the ranking requirements and other changes in eligibility rules.

For example, some districts have been dropped entirely under a provision of the new law that requires districts to have a minimum of 10 poor school-age children to participate. The previous version required 10 poor children per county.

In Alaska, four districts that previously provided Title I services did not meet the new threshold, said Kathie Berg, the state's Title I coordinator.

"We have a lot of small districts, small villages, so the requirement of 10 poor kids sounds all right on the face of it, but it has an impact," Ms. Berg said.

Another change allows schools to use Title I money schoolwide, rather than focusing it only on eligible children, if the school has a poverty rate of at least 65 percent. The rate had been set at 75 percent previously, and anecdotal evidence suggests that schools are taking advantage of the change.

In Rochester, N.Y., 46 of 48 Title I schools are eligible to operate schoolwide programs, and all are doing so, said Woodrow Hammond, the director of the district's office of grants, development, and compliance. In Birmingham, 50 of 54 schools are operating schoolwide programs this school year, compared with only 17 last year.

"Basically, the whole system bought into it," said Ms. Buckley, the Alabama district's federal-programs coordinator.

Vol. 15, Issue 15

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