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Education Funding

Better Uses for Federal Aid to Low-Income Students Studied in New Report

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 28, 2016 4 min read
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When they passed the Every Student Succeeds Act last year, lawmakers granted districts more flexibility in how they use Title I funds, the federal formula grant program targeted at low-income students. Now a new report explores how states and the U.S. Department of Education can support new, local, and more-effective approaches to Title I spending.

Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University, has some answers in a new report, “Increasing Targeting, Flexibility, and Transparency in Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to Help Disadvantaged Students.” The paper argues that effective local decisions about spending Title I funds have the biggest “bang for the buck,” but that Washington and the states can do better to help locals make better decisions without running afoul of the grant program’s requirements.

I’ve written previously, that under ESSA, districts generally have greater flexibility in deciding how Title I funds can be used.

Gordon suggests, however, that with that local flexibility comes more responsibility for officials at all levels of K-12 governance. She argues that district administrators must put more emphasis on making sure they’re using Title I funds to improve classroom instruction and outcomes, and that they should be less fearful about creating “a clean compliance trail at the cost of allocating funds where they are most effective.” As an example of the latter, she cites the decision by many districts to hire a “Title I director” and associated staff.

And here are helpful roles for federal officials to play as district leaders focus on quality ways to spend Title I money, Gordon said. What would those look like? Gordon offers a few ideas:

• "[The U.S. Department of Education] should create one federal guidance document that is current, concise, comprehensive, and comprehensible.”

Gordon says this document should be created with extensive state and local input. It would also, ideally, contain answers in a “Frequently Asked Questions” section that would include examples of how Title I compliance can be met, among other features, according to Gordon.

• “The [federal] Office of Elementary and Secondary Education should create a public, online, searchable database of all official correspondence from ED to SEAs and LEAs on compliance issues.”

Districts and states typically have unequal access to resources that could help them answer their questions about Title I compliance, according to Gordon, who adds that the drip-drip of related documents from the Education Department is also a problem. Offices within the department, like the office for civil rights, already offer something like this “reading room” option so that officials can stay updated, she adds. (Informal email correspondence would be excluded.)

• “[The Education Department] should offer competitive pilot grants for technical assistance to SEAs and LEAs to convert to simpler and more-flexible forms of fiscal compliance, emphasizing the supplemental funds test, fiscal consolidation, and direct cost allocation.”

The federal government and outside groups could help fund these pilot programs, which would set up “integrated data systems” that would help districts and states automate the record-keeping and compliance process. States with “strong demonstrated capacity for innovative educational practice and good relations with their LEAs [local education agencies]” would get a preference, Gordon says.

Winners and Losers

Gordon also recommends formula changes to Title I that would require altering federal law.

For example, Gordon says that of the four formulas Title I uses to distribute aid, two of them, “concentration” and “education finance incentive” grants, should be eliminated, and “targeted” grants beefed up. These changes would put a bigger emphasis on poverty rates in districts, rather than their total counts of students in poverty.

What would her proposed changes to Title I do for each state? (Or to put it another way, which states would be the winners and which the losers?) Here’s a chart Gordon drew up that shows how the per-student allocation of Title I money would look different in each state in the system she proposes:

You can see that the big “losers” among states are states with relatively small populations like Vermont and Wyoming. The “winners” include states like Arizona and Mississippi, although their gains are not directly proportional to the losses in funding of states like New Hampshire and North Dakota.

Proposed changes to Title I that touched on similar issues were discussed last year but were ultimately left out of ESSA. How to handle the concentration of low-income students in each district, versus the total number of such students in schools, has been a thorny problem for years.

Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., as Gordon notes, had been pushing for changes to Title I to put a greater emphasis on schools, many of them in mid-sized and rural districts, with high concentrations of poverty. But major urban districts objected, fearing that their schools could be unfairly shortchanged if some of the proposals went through. Ultimately, these kinds of changes to Title I were left out of ESSA. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., also pushed to rework Title I aid.

The report was one of three released in conjunction with an event hosted Monday by the Hamilton Project called “Strengthening Student Learning Through Innovation and Flexibility.” Another report focused on individualized tutorials for disadvantaged students, while a third examined a case study in using educational technology.

Read Gordon’s full report.

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