Off Target?

By Erik W. Robelen — September 05, 2001 15 min read
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Highlandtown Elementary School in southeast Baltimore would seem to be a classic candidate for aid under Title I, the flagship federal program to help disadvantaged students.

The numbers are certainly there. About 70 percent of the school’s students qualify for free school lunches, a standard benchmark for measuring poverty. But this coming year, the school won’t get a dime from the $8.8 billion program. More than 100 Baltimore schools have even higher poverty levels. The district ran out of Title I money before it got to the 765-pupil school.

Highlandtown is not alone. Across the country, one in five schools with a poverty rate between 50 percent and 75 percent does not receive Title I aid, according to the U.S. Department of Education, even though research suggests that it is such high concentrations of poverty that pose some of the greatest academic obstacles.

The Baltimore school’s situation would be different were it part of the suburban school district in nearby Howard County, Md. There, just 24 miles away, Bryant Woods Elementary School is slated to receive almost $60,000 in direct Title I aid this school year, plus teaching support through the district’s Title I program valued at more than $200,000.

That’s despite another notable difference between the two schools: The poverty rate at Bryant Woods is only one-fourth what it is at Highlandtown, with about 18 percent of students qualifying for free lunches. In fact, Highlandtown would be first in line to receive Title I money if it were in Howard County.

Poor, it seems, is relative. The explanation for the disparity has as much to do with politics as policy.

“It’s always been a compromise between the effort to target the money and the political pressures to spread it around,” said Gary Orfield, a professor at Harvard University’s graduate school of education.

To maintain broad political support, money from Title I—the largest federal program for K-12 education—touches every state, nine out of 10 school districts, and six out of 10 public schools. Put another way, the money reaches constituents for every member of Congress.

Combined with the fact that Congress does not provide nearly enough Title I money to serve all eligible children—some estimate that the total spending would have to triple to “fully fund” the program—many qualifying schools are invariably left out. What is striking is how often high-poverty schools find themselves in that situation.

Here in Baltimore, for example, about 50 schools where more than half the students are disadvantaged will not receive Title I aid this year.

For A. Courtney Lewis, the principal of Baltimore’s Highlandtown Elementary—technically, Highlandtown #215, not to be confused with the district’s other elementary school with the same name but a different number—the news that his school would not receive Title I money this fall was deeply upsetting.

Last year, the school got $336,000 from the program. Luckily for Highlandtown #215, the actual loss will not be nearly that high. The state kicked in almost $224,000 to help out, Mr. Lewis said. And responding to a plea from his school and several others, the district agreed to make up half the $112,000 shortfall. But the school will still be taking a hit.

“That translates directly into the loss of services,” he said.

And elsewhere, particularly as the cooling economy mutes tax revenue, states and districts do not always have the means to help such schools. Patricia E. Abernethy, the curriculum and instruction officer for the 100,000-student Baltimore public schools, said that given the city’s high poverty rate, the district simply does not receive enough Title I aid to serve all eligible schools. She questioned the way the federal program distributes funding so widely among districts.

“You would think the money would follow the schools that are the most poor,” she said.

Winners and Losers

Some members of Congress would like to address the problem facing many such schools this year through a dramatic injection of new Title I money. And, using what they hope would be a revised formula for disbursing any money allocated above current levels, those lawmakers would direct more aid to high-poverty districts. But analysts caution that success on either front is likely to be tough.

The issues loom as Congress and the White House work to complete legislation overhauling the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which includes Title I. The House and the Senate have passed separate versions of the ESEA, and now the differences must be sorted out in a conference committee.

Both bills promise tougher demands on schools to improve achievement. That has prompted a call from many lawmakers—especially Democrats—to couple the new demands with more money. Otherwise, they say, many schools will be set up for failure.

Democrats have hammered away at President Bush on the funding issue, complaining for months now that his proposed education budget for fiscal 2002 is too stingy. He has proposed to allocate $2.1 billion for the Department of Education above what Congress and President Clinton agreed to last year, with a $459 million increase, or about 5 percent, for Title I. However, a supplemental spending bill signed in July added $161 million for Title I for fiscal 2001.

Congress had been expected to pass an appropriations bill giving education more than Mr. Bush requested. But it remains far from clear how much extra money will be added—particularly in light of newly released projections leaving little money for new spending without dipping into the Social Security surplus. Nor is it clear, assuming Congress and the president find a way to put more into education, how much of that will go into Title I.

During the Senate ESEA debate in June, members voted 79-21 to authorize much higher levels for Title I over the next 10 years, including $15 billion for fiscal 2002, almost twice this year’s total. But it is far easier to authorize than to actually appropriate money, a separate legislative process.

If history is any sign, spending for Title I is not likely to increase as quickly as for some other programs. Funding for overall K-12 programs grew by 72 percent between fiscal 1994 and 2001, while Title I aid grew 23 percent. Special education, in particular, has seen much faster growth.

Sandy Kress, Mr. Bush’s chief education adviser, said that Title I would be a top priority for the president if the education budget is to grow beyond the administration’s request.

“If we can squeeze extra money out ... we believe it ought to go to Title I and Title III,” he said. Title III of the ESEA authorizes programs to help students with limited English proficiency.

Mr. Kress and some congressional Republicans were dismayed when the Senate added a host of new programs during the floor debate last spring. They suggest those new wrinkles, assuming they survive the House-Senate conference committee, could make it still harder to ensure adequate funding for core programs like Title I.

“The more programs we create, the harder it becomes to target federal resources to the very students we’re trying to help,” said Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

Push for Targeting

The cause of sharpening Title I targeting to poor districts has been championed recently by so-called New Democrats, especially Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut. Sen. Lieberman, a key negotiator in the ESEA deliberations, emphasized the issue during a meeting in early June with other lawmakers and President Bush.

“I made a specific appeal to him about the targeting of money,” Mr. Lieberman said in an interview shortly after the meeting. “The question here is not only how much money you put into the education reform, but where does it go?” He added: “The president was very responsive. He said, ‘I understand it, and I want to work with you on that.’”

Mr. Bush’s budget plan reflects that position. He proposed dedicating the entire $459 million Title I increase to the “targeted grants” program Mr. Lieberman supports, which gives greater weight to districts with high concentrations of poverty.

“We’re very supportive of targeting,” Mr. Kress said.

But even with backing from the White House, it may be difficult to achieve a more targeted approach, since some states and districts invariably do better than others under such a formula.

“There’s a lot of talk about [increased] targeting, but waiting to see it happen is a little bit different,” said Jeff Simering, the legislative director for the Council of the Great City Schools, a group that represents large urban school districts. “There’s a lot of difference where you stand on conceptual issues and where you stand on allocations, [when you] get down to winners and losers.”

In June, the Senate approved an ESEA amendment offered by Sen. Landrieu—on a 57-36 vote—stating that any appropriation above current levels for Title I should go toward the targeted grants. The House bill likewise includes that stipulation.

But similar language is included in existing law and has been ignored. The real test will come later this year, when Congress takes up the spending bill for the Education Department. Last year, Ms. Landrieu had far less success when she sought to earmark $750 million for targeted grants; that amendment to the appropriations bill was defeated, 75-23.

“This is going to be a battle, because this is all about members of Congress fighting for more money for their states and congressional districts,” Mr. Lieberman said.

One other targeting issue in the ESEA debate that has prompted some concern is a pilot program in the Senate bill that would allow up to seven states and 25 districts to combine money from several major programs, including Title I. Critics suggest that provision could allow states to undermine the federal targeting of funds to high-poverty districts to some degree. There are constraints, however, on the flexibility permitted with Title I money that would limit the impact.

A Brief History

The debate over how to spread Title I aid is as old as the Great Society-era program itself.

“There’s been tension about targeting going back all the way to 1965,” said Jack Jennings, the president of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy and formerly a longtime aide to Democrats on the House education committee. And the way Title I is distributed has even larger implications, as the funding for many other precollegiate programs goes out based in part on Title I allocations.

The latest major go-around was in 1994, when several proposals to overhaul the formulas were on the table during the last ESEA reauthorization, prompting fierce debate. Ultimately, Congress added two new formulas, including the targeted grants. But neither has ever been used, despite routine calls from President Clinton to dedicate a portion of Title I aid to those grants.

Actually, the most significant effect on targeting after 1994 was a new requirement that districts provide money to all schools above the 75 percent poverty mark, in rank order, before serving other schools.

An Education Department analysis said the 1994 change alone resulted in nearly all (95 percent) of those high-poverty schools’ receiving Title I funds in 1997-98, compared with 79 percent in 1993-94. But during that same period, the share of Title I aid going to the highest-poverty districts was mostly unchanged. In fact, on average, high-poverty districts received less Title I money per pupil ($875) than low-poverty districts ($996) in fiscal 1997, the department’s study found.

The contrast was even more vivid at the school level. While low-poverty schools were less likely than high-poverty schools to receive Title I money, those that did, on average, received much higher allocations per low-income student: $773 vs. $475.

What is often referred to as the “bloody” formula fight of 1994 has discouraged any plans for radically restructuring the flow of Title I money to districts and states this time around. Instead, the targeting language proposed this year would likely have a modest impact at best, focusing on money above and beyond what states and districts already receive. And even the formula for targeted grants has a low threshold for eligibility: 5 percent poverty.

Currently, money under Title I, Part A (the technical name, as several smaller programs also operate under Title I) is distributed far and wide based on two formulas: “basic grants” and “concentration grants.” The two main factors in both formulas are the number of poor children and each state’s average per-pupil expenditure. (See chart, Page 47.)

Most of the money, about 85 percent, goes out under basic grants. Because the threshold for those grants is so low, more than 90 percent of districts receive at least some money. So, as affluent a school system as the 7,400-student Eanes district in suburban Austin, Texas, received about $156,000 for the 2000-01 school year—even though it has some of the best schools in the state and has a free and reduced-price lunch rate of only slightly more than 2 percent.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Louisiana, the 77,000-student New Orleans system finds itself in the position of telling schools with 84 percent of their students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches that no Title I money is left for them.

The concentration grants are more targeted, but the formula is still wide enough to encompass an estimated 9,000 of the nation’s approximately 15,000 school systems for the new school year.

Matters are further complicated by Congress’ annual intervention, through so-called 100 percent “hold harmless” provisions, to prevent states and districts from receiving less than in the previous year. That is, the federal program is not permitted to accurately reflect shifts in population and poverty.

In fact, more than 1,700 school districts that technically no longer even qualify for concentration grants received them anyway last year because of hold-harmless provisions in the appropriations bill.

Some states and districts lose out under the hold-harmless provisions. In California, for example, the estimated number of poor school-age children increased from 894,202 to 1,363,763 between fiscal 1996 and fiscal 1999, according to a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. While that represented an increase of 53 percent in the qualified population of students, the state’s Title I grants increased by just 31 percent, the CRS said.

Mounting pressure from lawmakers in California and other high-growth states spurred a compromise in the fiscal 2001 budget that provides some extra money for those areas to help offset the problem. But the deal fully protects states and districts that otherwise would see less Title I aid, or none at all.

An analysis this year by the General Accounting Office, Congress’ investigative arm, found that eliminating the 100 percent hold-harmless provisions would increase funding for high-poverty districts and decrease it for low-poverty districts. It also would result in a substantial shift at the state level, with 33 states estimated to lose some money. With that kind of result, the political odds of ending the hold-harmless measure fall somewhere between slim and “are you kidding?”

Tilted Playing Field

And while Title I is designed to provide additional academic support for needy students, in many cases it doesn’t come close to leveling the field. Overall, districts and schools with the highest student poverty already face a financial deficit relative to their counterparts with few poor students, according to a study by the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that promotes high academic standards for poor children. It found that—excluding federal aid—in 42 of 49 states analyzed, districts with the greatest numbers of poor children had less money to spend per student than districts with the fewest poor children.

With a limited Title I pie, cutting it into 435 pieces—enough for each congressional district—necessarily creates a disconnect between political reality and the classroom realities outlined in a 1999 Education Department report. Concentrations of poverty, the report said, result in the most severe barriers to higher student achievement. In other words, a needy student surrounded by better-off students, all other things being equal, will do better than a similar student in a school dominated by the poor.

In that sense, poverty is in fact relative.

“Poor students in high-poverty schools are doubly at risk, with lower achievement levels than poor students in low-poverty schools,” the report said.

In Maryland, meanwhile, officials of the Baltimore district have worked to cushion the blow for schools like Highlandtown Elementary that will find themselves without Title I money this year. Ms. Abernethy, the curriculum and instruction officer, said Highlandtown and several other schools were bumped from the list when an aggressive effort to get accurate counts turned up other schools with higher free-lunch counts. The cutoff point this year is just under 70 percent of students eligible for free lunches.

With its high poverty level, Baltimore does not even count students eligible for reduced-price lunches—a higher family-income threshold many districts use—in determining Title I eligibility.

When school administrators did the numbers last October, Highlandtown came in at 69.80 percent, according to district data. One or two poor students, in other words, below the cut-off.

Highlandtown’s poverty level is not unusual in the Baltimore public schools. Overall, the district’s average for free lunches is 65 percent. The statistic in nearby Howard County stands in stark contrast: About 6.6 percent qualify for free lunches.

That overall statistic does hide some pockets of poor children. The district will concentrate its Title I aid this year in 10 schools with free-lunch counts ranging from 17.2 percent to 40.4 percent.

And in those pockets, Howard County school officials say, the money has made a difference.

“It’s very important,” said Jason McCoy, the principal of Bryant Woods Elementary School. “It allows me to offer students additional support.” In the new school year, Title I money will translate into more intensive reading instruction for some students who have fallen behind, among other help.

But Mr. McCoy acknowledges there are added hardships in educating students in the large urban district due east of his school. “Some administrators in Baltimore do have, in many ways, bigger challenges than we do,” he said.

Title I was Congress’ answer to such challenges. Lawmakers generally include preambles to their legislative acts, layman’s language meant to clarify the intent of the arcane legalisms that follow. The introduction to the Title I law contains such a prologue, one that says nothing about sprinkling the act’s dollars more or less evenly across the fruited plain.

“The most urgent need for educational improvement,” Congress declared, “is in schools with high concentrations of children from low-income families.”

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