Red Flags Raised on Plan to Let Title I Aid Follow Students

Element in ESEA bill riles up voucher foes

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Education groups are fighting a proposal on Capitol Hill that would allow federal funding to follow disadvantaged students to the public schools of their choice—an idea that school district advocates see as a pit stop on the highway to Voucherville.

The policy—known as "Title I portability"—is included in a draft bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act introduced by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate education committee.

Under the proposal, which was also included in an ESEA renewal bill that passed the House of Representatives with only Republican support in 2013, states would have the option of allowing federal money for disadvantaged children to follow students to any public school.

Politically, the provision could cost Sen. Alexander the support of some organizations that might otherwise embrace the overall push in the draft legislation to scale back the federal footprint on such matters as accountability, teacher quality, and school turnarounds. Part of the reason: Those education organizations see it as stalking horse for a full-fledged voucher program.

"It's not a winner to try and throw a private school voucher in here," said Sasha Pudelski, the assistant director of policy and advocacy for AASA, the School Superintendents Association. "We are generally very confused as to why it is in the bill if it is truly a public school option and not a voucher."

Ironically, the idea is also unpopular among some adamant school choice proponents, who say it doesn't go far enough—they want students to be able to use federal aid at private schools as well as public.

Lindsey Burke, the Will Skillman fellow in education at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank, wishes Mr. Alexander's draft were much bolder on school choice.

"Conservatives have long worked toward Title I portability that would allow states to make their Title I dollars portable to public and private schooling options of choice," she said. "The current proposal would only allow Title I funds to follow a child to a public school of choice and, as such, is a missed opportunity."

Funding Complexities

Education finance experts wonder if the policy is even workable, given the complexities of the Title I funding formula, which allocates about$15 billion a year to districts to help educate the poorest students.

Title I dollars are geared toward concentrations of poverty, so a student taking Title I money from a school with a lot of poor children to a school with fewer students in poverty might be given a smaller allotment, said Michael Griffith, a senior policy analyst at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. That's because the per-pupil amount of Title I money is often higher for higher-poverty schools.

He added that because Title I is typically funded in October for the school year starting the following fall, there could be a lag between when a student transfers and when the money arrives at the new campus.

"I just worry, because Title I is so complicated, one change can create a whole sort of domino effect," he said. "If I were a [state] legislator, I would want to see the exact financial ramifications for making this decision."

If the language were to become law, Mr. Griffith would expect that only a small number of states—those most committed to school choice, such as Arizona and Florida—would immediately take advantage of the provision, since the draft would leave it up to states to decide whether or not to participate.

More than 50 education organizations—including both national teachers' unions—sent a letter to Sen. Alexander and the top Democrat on the education committee, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, expressing strong opposition to the idea of allowing Title I money to follow children, even just to public schools.

"This proposal would undermine Title I's fundamental purpose of assisting public schools with high concentrations of poverty and high-need students," the groups wrote in the Jan. 26 letter. "Furthermore, Title I portability—even when limited to public schools—is a steppingstone to private school vouchers."

The language doesn't go as far as some of Mr. Alexander's past school choice proposals. For instance, Sen. Alexander introduced an amendment to a budget bill a few years ago that would have allowed states to direct Title I dollars to a private school. That was also the central education campaign pledge of Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee in 2012.

And Sen. Alexander put forth a voucher bill in the last Congress that would have turned nearly every federal program into a giant block grant that could be used for school choice. He has said he would try to move that bill—or something similar—separately from the ESEA renewal, in part because vouchers are politically divisive, even among moderate Republicans.

Amendments Possible

But some lawmakers may want to bolster the role of school choice in rewriting the ESEA, whose current version—signed into law in 2002—is the No Child Left Behind Act.

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., a school choice proponent who sits on the Senate education committee, said Mr. Alexander's public-school-portability language is "a positive step in the right direction." But, he added, "in my perfect world, we would allow much of the Title I funding to go to a private school, not just a public school."

Sen. Scott hasn't decided if he'll seek to change the draft to allow for private school choice. But Sen. Alexander has said he expects that an amendment authorizing private school vouchers will be introduced when the committee considers the bill—or during Senate floor debate.

If a provision allowing private school choice were to pass, the bill would face even stiffer opposition from some education groups, including the National Education Association. The NEA arguably has the strongest K-12 lobbying operation on Capitol Hill.

The NEA is not in favor of Title I portability for public schools, Mary Kusler, the director of government relations for the 3 million-member union, said in an interview. But language allowing Title I money to go to a private school—or an out-and-out voucher program—would be even worse, she added.

"That's a totally different animal," Ms. Kusler said. "That's a direct dilution of the federal role" in providing an equitable education for all children. "You take federal dollars away [from public schools]," she said, "you're really threatening that ability to provide a quality education for all children regardless of their ZIP code."

Choice and Testing

Meanwhile, some school choice advocates are wary of a separate issue in Sen. Alexander's discussion draft: language that could roll back the federal mandate for annual assessments. The NCLB law requires that students be tested in reading and math every year in grades 3-8 and once during high school.

Mr. Alexander placed two possible options for testing in his discussion draft. One would keep the NCLB testing regime in place, but let districts try out other approaches, as long as their states gave approval. The other would allow states to come up with their own assessment systems, including how often tests are given.

But moving away from annual testing could have serious implications for school choice, educators and some choice advocates say.

"Parents have a right to know how their kids are doing every year," said John White, the state superintendent in Louisiana, which is home to a robust school-choice program. "A test doesn't tell the whole story, but it's an important indicator, especially for parents who are evaluating school choices for their kids. Advocates for school choice should also be advocates for measuring school quality.

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"It's hard to get a read on school quality if you don't have an annual checkup," Mr. White said.

And annual testing has helped charter school authorizers figure out which charter models to replicate and which should close their doors, said Alex Medler, the vice president for policy and advocacy at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, based in Chicago. That's beefed up the quality and reputation of the charter sector as a whole, he added.

"We actually think that charter school authorizers are some of the most sophisticated users of annual testing data," Mr. Medler said.

Vol. 34, Issue 20, Page 18

Published in Print: February 4, 2015, as Cautions Raised on Plan to Let Title I Cash Follow Students
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