School Choice Backers Lukewarm on Provision in ESEA Rewrite

House ESEA rewrite contains provision

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After years of success in statehouses from Florida to Nevada, supporters of educational choice might have seen this year's push to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as a way to bolster K-12 choice options at the federal level.

What they got instead has failed to excite them—to the point where some would prefer to gamble on the election of a Republican president who could promote school choice more aggressively, rather than accepting the deal on the table.

The ESEA rewrite passed by the House of Representatives has a provision that would give states the option to have their Title I aid, which is earmarked for disadvantaged students, follow students to the public schools of their choice. That option is generally called Title I portability. (The bill also includes a provision that states would have to set aside 3 percent of their Title I aid for competitive grants that would allow districts to offer school choice or free tutoring services.)

Some observers believe Title I portability's chances of survival are quite bleak. Yet, if it's not included after ongoing negotiations between House and Senate lawmakers to craft a final ESEA bill, its absence might become one more reason for opposition from conservative House Republicans who want Title I aid extended to private schools.

Meanwhile, opponents of Title I portability, including the Obama administration, have consistently argued that the proposal would unfairly redirect federal money from high-poverty to low-poverty districts, ignoring the effects of concentrated poverty on students.

Although some lawmakers backing school choice might be irritated if Title I portability is removed, moderate Republicans who might have felt "queasy" about supporting portability will more likely focus on supporting the increased power over the use of test scores and how to handle low-performing schools that both bills currently provide to states, even if their appetite for broader K-12 choice isn't satisfied, said Michael J. Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which supports school choice.

"There's just not a strong enough argument for portability," Petrilli said.

'Full' Disappointment

The Title I portability provision in the House bill is a far cry, for example, from a previous plan backed by Indiana GOP Rep. Luke Messer and other conservatives that would have allowed about $14.5 billion in Title I funds to flow to private schools, including religious ones, as well as public schools.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, saw his similar proposal for Title I portability killed off before the Senate passed its own ESEA bill in July. (A provision of the Senate bill that passed would let states permit students in low-performing schools to transfer.)

President Barack Obama has threatened to veto any ESEA bill that includes portability. The White House in February emphasized the Title I cuts to many districts that would take place under portability, estimating that the 100 districts facing the most severe cuts would lose 15 percent of their Title I aid, or $570 million in all. But those figures are based on the administration's proposed fiscal 2016 budget, which has not been enacted and which House Republicans have ignored.

The stalled push to expand choice in the next version of the federal education law stands in contrast to new laws in states like Nevada. Earlier this year, that state adopted a groundbreaking education-savings-account program that gives parents the power to direct state spending earmarked for K-12 to private schools (including religious ones) and home schooling, as well as other expenses.

Petrilli suggests that many choice advocates have been more concerned with the reauthorization of the federal Opportunity Scholarship program, which provides private school vouchers to students in the District of Columbia, than Title I portability. (The House voted to reauthorize the program last week.)

Disappointment over the lack of "full" Title I portability that extends to private schools is another example of Republican leaders refusing to do battle politically with Obama and other Democrats, said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action for America, a conservative political action committee that supports vouchers and believes portability should be extended to private schools.

Holler said that the weak Title I choice provision in the House bill, one that would apply to the next ESEA reauthorization for several years, simply isn't worth holding on to, especially with the opportunity for a GOP candidate to win the White House next year.

"You could see the whole [choice] issue taken off the table for the next president's first term," Holler said. "We would just rather see things continue apace for 18 months."

Choice and Political Pressure

The districts hardest hit by Title I portability would be in urban centers like Chicago and Philadelphia and cities with both high poverty rates and relatively robust charter sectors that present more public school options, said Michael Griffith, the senior school finance analyst with the Education Commission of the States.

Title I aid per student can reach up to roughly $3,000 annually, Griffith noted, depending on the state.

"This is one of the few areas [federal lawmakers] can actually touch in federal funding that would have anything to do with choice and vouchers and anything like that," Griffith said. "I don't think there's anyone out there who thinks this is a big change."

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If states had the option to enact Title I portability, though, wealthier districts and their constituents would see an opportunity to pick up additional federal funding for their schools and act accordingly, at the expense of schools with high concentrations of poverty, said Natasha Ushomirsky, a senior policy anddata analyst at the Education Trust, which opposes portability.

"There would be a lot of political pressure on states to take this option up," Ushomirsky said.

Politics aside, the Education Trust and other like-minded groups believe that the damage portability would do to the poorest districts makes the issue so potentially damaging that they must oppose it vigorously.

Separate proposals related to Title I in the House and Senate bills would affect the distribution of aid to school districts and states, respectively, by altering the formulas governing the aid.

An Education Trust analysis published last February found, for example, that under Title I portability, California districts in the highest-poverty quartile would lose 13 percent of their Title I aid, while corresponding districts in Pennsylvania would lose 21 percent of their aid, and such districts in Illinois would lose 19 percent.

Vol. 35, Issue 10, Pages 16, 19

Published in Print: October 28, 2015, as Some School Choice Backers Tepid on Title I Portability Proposal
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