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Federal Opinion

ESEA Cabin Fever: Should Federal Funds Follow Students?

By Rick Hess & Peter Cunningham — February 11, 2015 4 min read
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“Cabin Fever” is a virtual conversation between two friends who come from the opposite ends of the political spectrum but share a belief in the power of public education to improve lives and brighten our collective future. The focus of the conversation is the federal K-12 education law known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind), which is in progress in Congress. Our initial post on February 4 reflected areas of agreement around annual testing and transparency. Additional posts focus on areas of disagreement and will run simultaneously through February 19 every other day on Rick’s blog at Education Week and on Education Post.

Should federal funds follow a poor child to a public or private school of choice?

Peter Cunningham Responds

Peter Cunningham is the Executive Director of Education Post, a Chicago-based nonprofit supporting efforts to improve public education. He previously served as Assistant Secretary for Education in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2012.

Everyone knows that it costs more to educate a poor child than a wealthy one, yet America is one of the only developed countries in the world that spends more public dollars to educate the rich than the poor. So why make it worse?

Under the “portability” proposal under consideration by Congress, school districts serving large concentrations of low-income students could lose millions of dollars to public or private schools that serve few poor kids, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress.

Advocates for portability believe that if a poor child has an opportunity to attend a wealthier school, federal poverty funds should follow the child to the school. Studies show not only that poor kids do better in schools serving higher-income classmates, but also that higher-income kids benefit from economic diversity.

In practice, however, the amount of money that would follow an individual child is in the low hundreds, so it won’t make much difference to the receiving school. On the other hand, when a school or district with lots of poor children aggregates federal dollars targeted for low-income children, they can do something meaningful like hire extra teachers, pay for tutoring or buy more resources.

Concentrated poverty is a growing problem in a country where more than half of the children in public schools today come from low-income families. The last thing we should do is make an already tough situation even tougher.

Rick Hess Responds

Federal Title I dollars have historically flowed to school districts based on complicated formulas that broadly reflect the number of low-income children in a given school district. Congress should move to a system where those dollars instead follow eligible students to any state-approved school option (including private schools, in those states that opt to allow private school choice).

The existing Title I funding arrangements can be traced to a series of political compromises struck back when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was enacted in 1965. And, frankly, at that point, it wasn’t logistically feasible for dollars to follow individual students.

Today, it is logistically possible for the dollars to follow those students—and they should. Ideally, the federal government should allow states (if they so wish) to have those dollars follow eligible students to a school of their choice. The funds are intended to educate children from low-income households, and there’s no reason for Congress to stand in the way of states that wish to make it easier for parents to use those funds to help their child attend a terrific school. If states want to create private choice options and parents think the traditional school system is a lousier bet than the resultant alternatives, it’s unclear why Congress should insist that those dollars nonetheless flow to traditional district bureaucracies.

And I’m entirely unclear on why the Center for American Progress thinks that traditional districts should have some kind of eternal claim on those funds. There are school districts like Trenton, New Jersey, that spend more than $25,000 per student per year with dismal results. If New Jersey lawmakers happened to think that federal funds could better serve Title I students by allowing them to attend private schools, Congress should allow them to make that call.

Other Posts in This Series

Wednesday, February 4 - Issue #1: Testing and transparency

Friday, February 6 - Issue #2: Federal mandates around student performance

Monday, February 9 - Issue #3: What the federal government should require when it comes to school improvement

Friday, February 13 - Issue #5: What the federal government should require when it comes to teacher evaluation

Tuesday, February 17 - Issue #6: Federal support for innovation

Thursday, February 19 - Wrapping Things Up: The proper federal role in K-12 education

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.