Title I Portability Idea Draws Scrutiny on Hill

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Proposals to allow Title I dollars to follow students directly to the schools of their choice appear to be attracting attention, or at least prompting inquiries, from some members of Congress.

The idea has encountered skepticism and even outright hostility, however, from some Democrats and officials at the Department of Education, who wonder whether it represents little more than a backdoor move toward publicly funded vouchers. Many in the education community are also critical of the approach.

Just last week, members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee spent considerable time during a Title I hearing examining the idea of making the federal program into a so-called portable entitlement.

Congress this year is gearing up to reauthorize the $8 billion Title I program, which is designed to improve the achievement of low-income students, and other portions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Many lawmakers have expressed frustration at what they see as the ineffectiveness of Title I in closing the achievement gap between such students and their more affluent peers.

Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who chairs the Senate panel's Children and Families Subcommittee, plans to introduce a Title I portability proposal within the next few weeks, according to an aide to the senator. Although Mr. Gregg's staff is still working out details, the plan is expected to allow states to set up a funding stream through which federal dollars would follow each poor child from school to school. The plan, the aide said, would also likely propose increasing Title I dollars overall.

Voucher Questions

But it remains unclear whether Mr. Gregg would be be able to generate enough support for such a plan, even among his fellow Republicans. When asked about Title I portability in an interview last week, the chairman of the education committee, Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., withheld comment. "I'm just listening right now," he said.

Under the current system, states distribute Title I dollars to school districts, which provide programs and funding to schools with high concentrations of students from poor families. Within schools, programs are provided on the basis of educational need and, in some cases, through schoolwide programs permitted under 1994 reforms to the ESEA.

Marshall S. Smith, the acting deputy secretary of education, criticized the portability approach in an interview last week.

"This is clearly a stalking-horse for vouchers," he said. He argued that many children in high-poverty schools face a "double disadvantage" because the schools tend to lack sufficient resources and the students lack the advantages at home that wealthier students tend to enjoy. Under funding constraints, "our highest priority is to put funding in the highest-poverty schools," he added.

During the May 12 hearing, Lisa Graham Keegan, Arizona's superintendent of public instruction, urged lawmakers to consider a portability system. "The simplicity of moving the money to where the child is ... is very compelling," Ms. Keegan, a Republican, said. "We should not worry so much about distribution to central offices."

Sen. Gregg expressed great interest in Ms. Keegan's proposal. "All you're asking for is that flexibility" for a portable entitlement, he told her. "Unfortunately, it's the mentality in Washington that you shouldn't have that flexibility and Arizona should be told exactly how it's going to use Title I money."

But some committee Democrats were more hostile to the idea. As Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking minority member, put it: "We have to ask ourselves, 'Is that what we're interested in with scarce resources?' " Echoing a question other members posed, he added, "What happens to those students [who leave with their Title I dollars], and to those students that are left behind?"

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., asked Ms. Keegan whether what she was describing was "basically a voucher program."

The Arizona schools chief said it was not. "No sir. This is an allocation of funds. This says education is for the benefit of the student and not for the benefit of anything else," Ms. Keegan said.

Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Washington-based Council for Basic Education, cautioned against concluding that dramatic reforms are needed, since Title I changes made in 1994 are only now beginning to be implemented.

"We are still in the transition period," he said. Mr. Cross, who was an assistant secretary of education under President Bush, chairs an independent advisory committee created by Congress to advise the Education Department on evaluating ESEA programs.

Diane Ravitch, a New York University scholar and another former assistant secretary in the Bush administration, visited Capitol Hill last month to promote portability. She said in an interview that many children who need Title I assistance do not receive it simply because their schools do not qualify. Ms. Ravitch said she was not suggesting "a massive change in the Title I program," but rather allowing some states to experiment. ("Capitol Hill Begins Debate on Possible Title I Reforms," April 21, 1999.)

But in separate interviews last week, critics said the approach raises a host of tough questions.

"How is this going to improve Title I performance?" asked Arnold F. Fege, the president of Public Advocacy for Kids, a nonprofit consulting firm. "The public has a right to know what they get for this money."

Chuck Russell, a government-relations representative for the Texas Education Agency, said that unless Title I funding is increased substantially, "you're going to dilute the money."

Vol. 18, Issue 36, Pages 16, 18

Published in Print: May 19, 1999, as Title I Portability Idea Draws Scrutiny on Hill
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