A bipartisan group of senators, upset at the prospect of seeing less federal cash reach their states under the mammoth Title I program for disadvantaged students, is seeking to reverse the Department of Education’s plans to use updated U.S. Census data on child poverty when issuing grants later this year.
Even though Title I funding climbed by about $650 million for the current fiscal year, to $12.3 billion, when the federal government starts issuing checks this summer, 11 states are expected to see fewer dollars overall for their school districts than the year before.
“We are writing to express our deep concern about the effects of these new estimates [of child poverty] on children and schools, and we urge you to reconsider this change,” 21 senators wrote in a Feb. 13 letter to Secretary of Education Rod Paige.
The effort is being spearheaded by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. His state is expected to see the biggest decline, about $26 million, according to the Education Department, for a total of $234 million in Title I aid for fiscal 2004.
The letter was signed by 13 Democrats, seven Republicans, and the chamber’s sole Independent, Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont. Eight are members of the education committee.
Department Cites Law
But C. Todd Jones, the Education Department’s associate deputy secretary for budget, made clear that his agency had no plans to reverse course. He cited language in the No Child Left Behind Act, which reauthorized Title I.
“Congress clearly and unequivocally directed the department ... to use the most up-to-date data that is available,” he said in an interview. “The funding needs to follow the economically disadvantaged children.”
“If you have more people, and more people who are economically disadvantaged,” he said, “under this formula you will receive more money.”
Jim Manley, a spokesman for Sen. Kennedy, said that his boss was contemplating other routes to address the matter, such as writing legislative language instructing the department not to use the new data, or adding enough money through a supplemental appropriation— approximately $60 million—to ensure that no school district receives less money than in the previous year.
As part of the No Child Left Behind law, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Congress made several changes to how the federal government doles out money under Title I to better target high-poverty districts. The law also includes new language calling on the federal government to use annually updated census data in calculating Title I grants.
Fast Growers Benefit
Money under the program—the biggest federal initiative in precollegiate education— flows through state education agencies to school districts, though states are allowed to keep a small portion for administrative responsibilities.
For fiscal 2004, the Education Department plans to use census data from 2000. The previous year, the federal agency used 1999 figures.
The Congressional Research Service, an arm of Congress, has estimated that more than 7,000 school districts will see less money in 2004 under the 2000 data. While many of those districts are in the states receiving less aid, not all are. For instance, several big-city districts in California are expected to get less Title I aid, even though the state’s overall share will grow. The data also will lead to smaller increases for some states and districts than they would otherwise have received.
Of course, with a larger pot of Title I money this year, other states and districts make out far better, especially those experiencing rapid growth. Nevada’s share of Title I aid will increase by $11 million, to $64 million. Arizona will see an additional $40 million, for a total of $228 million.
Sen. John Ensign, a Republican from Nevada who led the effort to include the requirement for annual census updates, was joined by six other senators of both parties in sending their own letter, dated Feb. 18, to Secretary Paige supporting the department’s plans.
“The department is following the letter and the spirit of the law,” they wrote.
Although not signing that letter, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the chairman of the education committee, also sides with the department, even as his state stands to lose some $400,000 this fiscal year. New Hampshire will be getting an estimated $29.3 million.
“Every state in the country has received historic increases in Title I funding over the last several years,” he said in a statement. Sen. Gregg acknowledged that some states would get less this year, but he pointed out that in most cases, it would be smaller than a 5 percent reduction.
The “bottom line,” he said, is to use the most recent data reflecting shifts in the relative population of poor children in communities across the country.
To help make their case, Sen. Kennedy and other opponents of the department’s plans cite language in the No Child Left Behind law stating that the data must be deemed “reliable” and “appropriate” for the purpose of distributing education funds.
“We believe these new estimates of child poverty need not, and should not, be used because they are of questionable reliability with respect to the needs in our schools,” the opponents wrote. “We question whether economic conditions in areas suffering deep cuts under the department’s formula could have changed so dramatically in so short a time.”
The senators added that the poverty data were 4 years old and predated “the current recession.” They wrote: “We know from our states that many of the communities that see cuts under this plan have borne the brunt of the economic downturn, a fact that is not reflected in the new formula.”
But Mr. Jones of the Education Department said the “reliable” and “appropriate” language was “primarily designed in case there is a reason to believe the census data were methodologically flawed or subject to some sort of manipulation.”
“The secretary,” he said, “has no reason to believe that is the case.”