When the U.S. Senate’s education committee in April marked up a bipartisan bill to overhaul the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., picked a funding-formula fight—and won.
Now, the conservative Tar Heel is about to try his luck again with yet another funding formula, as the Senate continues considering the reauthorization proposal on the chamber floor.
As we’ve previously written, altering federal funding formulas is politically problematic because it shifts money from one state or district to another. That means there will always be some entity that loses money, so to speak, even if most lawmakers and advocates recognize that revising a formula is the fair thing to do.
But at the ESEA bill’s markup, Burr successfully pushed an amendment to alter the formula used to distribute Title II funding, which is used for things like teacher preparation, in order to funnel more money to school districts with higher concentrations of poverty.
This time Burr is looking to change the method used to allocate Title I funding for low-income students, a $14.5 billion grant program that’s the pillar of the federal K-12 law.
Without getting too into the weeds (something that’s easy to do when talking about the formulas), Burr’s Title I amendment would collapse the four different formulas currently used to disburse the dollars into one formula that would, among other things, preserve the number-weighting aspect of the current formula, while shifting the formula from using state average per-pupil expenditures to using national per-pupil expenditures.
“It’s unfair for federal education spending intended for low-income children to favor children who live in certain parts of the country,” said Burr in a statement. “When our government aims to assist children who need help, I expect that our laws will do just that. This amendment will rebalance the Title I formula once and for all.”
But, again, whether that’s fair or not is often beside the point. Generally speaking, senators aren’t going to back a proposal that would decrease the amount of funding sent to their state, especially at a time when federal dollars for education are scarce to begin with.
The Congressional Research Service, a sort of in-house nonpartisan think-tank for members of Congress, analyzed the impact of Burr’s amendment. (You can read its full analysis here, but here is CRS’ simple state-by-state breakdown.) It found that more states would stand to gain funding than lose it, 36 in total. Big winners would include California and Florida, each of which stand to gain more than $100 million annually.
But the states that stand to lose funding, in some cases, would lose big time. New York would say goodbye to more than $300 million, for example, and Pennsylvania nearly $130 million.
Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., both of whose states would lose money, took to the chamber floor on Wednesday and fired warning shots.
“I don’t know what procedural tools are available to us, but I will use every tool in the box to stop this,” Durbin said.
The amendment would reduce Illinois’ share of Title I money by $180 million per year.
“That’s a 21 percent reduction to help poor and low-income students,” Durbin said. “Chicago Public Schools alone would lose $68 million.”
Mikulski, whose home state stands to lose nearly $40 million, said she looks forward to supporting the final passage of the ESEA rewrite—provided Burr’s amendment is not included.
Notably, the amendment, which has a bipartisan cosponsor in Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., has not yet been introduced and language could still change before it is brought to the floor for a vote.
So far, education policy experts who have looked at the amendment and formula changes aren’t supporting the amendment.
Their argument? The formula change would end up redistributing money toward the most disadvantaged students, but would only do so for those in extremely high-poverty areas at the detriment of those in areas that are still very poor and need the federal assistance. It also doesn’t take into account the cost of living.
An early analysis of the numbers by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think-tank that often aligns with the Obama administration, shows that roughly 58 percent of students eligible for Title I dollars would actually get less funding under the Burr amendment.
The formula changes in the amendment, the CAP analysis found, would also sometimes penalize states and districts that are investing more in their public education system, without taking into account whether that’s the result of a wealthy state or district with high property taxes, or a poor state or district that has made education a priority in its budget but still needs all the Title I money it can get.
CAP recently drafted some guidelines on how the formula could be better altered, arguing for, among other things, taking cost of living into account more precisely and excluding affluent districts from eligibility.
Notably, CAP’s policy paper strikes at the heart of why changing the formula has proved so difficult:
“There is no perfect school funding formula. By definition, formulas distribute limited pots of money among diverse schools and districts, and most districts, if not all, could benefit from more resources.”
AASA, the School Superintendents Association, also weighed in on the amendment, applauding Burr for taking on the tricky issue, but ultimately remaining neutral on it and advocating key changes to move forward.
AASA has long supported a Title I formula change bill from Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., that largely focuses on ensuring Title I dollars are targeted based on concentration of poverty, not the presence of poverty. The AASA analysis urged Burr to consider provisions in that bill instead.
You can read AASA’s full analysis here.