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Capitol Hill Begins Debate on Possible Title I Reforms

By Erik W. Robelen — April 21, 1999 5 min read
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Debate over Title I’s future intensified last week, as the House held its first hearing on the program’s reauthorization and education experts weighed in at competing events on how best to improve it.

At the April 14 hearing, Republicans and Democrats on the Education and the Workforce Committee questioned a panel of academics and others about the $8 billion program, which aims to improve the achievement of disadvantaged students. But the lawmakers revealed few details of their own agendas for this year’s reauthorization of Title I and other federal K-12 programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Rep. Michael N. Castle

Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., who chairs the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth, and Families, expressed support for Title I, but suggested that changes were needed. “I am not convinced that we really have a grip on whether these funds are even working,” he said. “This is a time not just to reauthorize it the way it is,” he added.

Jay Diskey, a spokesman for Republicans on the full committee, said the panel expects to hold at least two more hearings on Title I next month. Overall, he said, the Republican focus will be on “quality” and “flexibility.” He also suggested that the notion of a “Super Ed-Flex” approach, which would free schools and states from many federal regulatory requirements in exchange for explicit agreements on results, “is starting to take hold up here.”

Title I and other federal programs were also the focus of an April 13 forum co-sponsored by the conservative Manhattan Institute and the centrist Progressive Policy Institute, which is affiliated with the Democratic Leadership Council. Speakers debated to what extent--if any--Title I should be revised. And, one day earlier, civil rights scholars entered the fray by unveiling a new report on Title I at a Capitol Hill briefing.

During the House hearing, Diane Ravitch, a New York University scholar and a former assistant secretary of education in the Bush administration, recommended that Title I be turned into a portable entitlement, with money following poor children to the school in which they are enrolled, consistent with state laws.

“At present, Title I dollars fund school districts, not schoolchildren,” she said. Ms. Ravitch noted that millions of poor children do not receive Title I aid because they attend schools with insufficient numbers of such children to qualify.

The proposal won praise from several Republicans.

Arguments about reforming Title I and other federal programs also surfaced during last week’s Manhattan Institute-Progressive Policy Institute event.

Debating Reform

Acting Deputy Secretary of Education Marshall S. Smith warned at that gathering against making dramatic changes to the standards-based reforms embedded in the 1994 reauthorization of the ESEA. “You’ve got to stay the course with this one,” he said.

But Chester E. Finn Jr., the John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a former assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration, said Congress should consider bold changes in the use of federal dollars, such as Super Ed-Flex and allowing Title I funds to follow students from school to school.

“Please let this be a time for big ideas, not tweaking, not celebrating, not more of the same,” he said.

Will Marshall, the president of the Progressive Policy Institute, said a viable alternative would be the use of “performance-based grants” for states and districts--an approach that he said would shift the focus from process to performance.

The conservative Heritage Foundation meanwhile echoed Mr. Finn’s statements in a study also released last week that argued that Title I has failed to adequately improve student performance.

Civil Rights Agenda

On another front, civil rights experts trained their sights on Title I during a packed April 12 briefing on Capitol Hill.

Gary Orfield

Gary Orfield, a co-chairman of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, called Title I “the most important civil rights issue. ... on Capitol Hill right now.”

He contended that the current education policy debate in Congress is dominated by a “parade of cliches.” The new report, “Hard Work for Good Schools: Facts Not Fads in Title I Reform,” brings together top researchers with up-to-date information to help inform the debate, Mr. Orfield said.

Mr. Orfield criticized states for what he sees as a failure to protect the needs of poor and minority students. Historically, he argued, the federal government has been much better about ensuring adequate funding for disadvantaged students. In fact, he said the federal role should be strengthened.

James McPartland, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, argued during the briefing--co-sponsored by the Civil Rights Project and the American Youth Policy Forum--that more Title I dollars should go to secondary schools. He said only about 20 percent of Title I money serves students in grades 7-12 and complained that policymakers wrongly assume it is enough to build a foundation for students in the early grades.

Despite the questions about Title I’s effectiveness, Mr. Orfield said the program does not need major changes. “It would be a disaster to end Title I. ... It’s extremely important to keep it and make it work,” he said. In fact, a crucial problem, according to Mr. Orfield, is that current federal law is not being “enforced seriously.”

Independent Panel Views

A group known as the Independent Review Panel, which was formed to advise the Department of Education on the agency’s congressionally mandated evaluation of the 1994 ESEA amendments, also released a report focusing on Title I this month.

Among its recommendations: targeting Title I dollars to schools with high proportions of poor students and fully funding Title I, which would triple its annual appropriation from the current $8 billion to about $24 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The same day the report was unveiled, the Education Department issued a broad assessment of federal education programs as mandated by Congress, “Federal Education Legislation Enacted in 1994: An Evaluation of Implementation and Impact.” The report’s findings include: Reform is headed in the right direction, but states are still in the process of implementing reforms; and, states have made significant progress in developing content standards, but progress is slower on devising performance standards and aligned assessments.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 1999 edition of Education Week as Capitol Hill Begins Debate on Possible Title I Reforms

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