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Education Funding

There Are Big Funding Gaps Affecting High-Poverty Schools. Can Biden Close Them?

By Andrew Ujifusa — June 09, 2021 9 min read
President Joe Biden talks about the May jobs report from the Rehoboth Beach Convention Center in Rehoboth Beach, Del., Friday, June 4, 2021.

The part of President Joe Biden’s proposed education budget with the most potential to break new ground might be the pitch for new “equity grants” to change how education funding works nationwide. It’s an ambitious proposal that highlights longstanding concerns that disadvantaged students often don’t get the resources they need and deserve.

But a variety of challenges, from the political to the practical, might mean it never gets off the ground.

Quick refresher: In its fiscal 2022 budget blueprint from the end of May, the Biden administration proposed “Title I equity grants” totaling $20 billion targeted at high-poverty school districts that would build on, but be separate from, the $16.5 billion Title I program for disadvantanged students. Perhaps the most ambitious or eye-catching of the grant’s four priorities is to get states to change their own K-12 funding formulas if they want to benefit from future increases in the program. The plan would also require them to publish per-pupil spending data that would expose spending disparities between schools and districts.

In addition, the grants would be used to ensure competitive teacher pay at Title I schools (those with relatively large shares of low-income students), expand access to preschool, and bolster student access to and success in advanced coursework.

The Biden budget says this blueprint “builds on” Title I aid. But in fact, the plan makes it clear the equity grants would rely on different formula than what Title I uses. The Education Department would likely then create regulations for the grants. Both of those processes could get very difficult. Recent history shows that negotiations over federal education funding statutes and regulations can raise hackles and ignite short fuses.

There are general questions, too. Would the grants be limited just to the specific uses outlined in the Biden budget document, like teacher pay and preschool? Or could they also fund other things? Title I currently can be used on a much broader array of programs, from curriculum to dual enrollment, than what’s outlined in the grant proposal.

In some respects, “Title I” might be more of a branding method for the new program than a precise description. Yet the technical details of the proposal are less important than the fact that the Biden administration is trying to move the conversation about equity and funding in a certain direction by attaching it to the biggest federal K-12 program, said David DeSchryver, a vice president at Whiteboard Advisors, an education consulting firm.

“I think they kind of tried to change the Title I formula, but they realized they don’t have a clearer grip on the implications of changing the formula, and everyone is fairly comfortable with it,” DeSchryver said. “The task is: transition to what should be a new era for Title I without triggering hysteria and the arrows and everything that would follow from doing something to the base of that program.”

As a presidential candidate, Biden promised to triple Title I funding. Technically, this grant pitch falls short of that on an annualized basis. But you don’t have to look too far to see where Biden’s team might have gotten the idea.

Last October, the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank that’s influential in Democratic Party circles, released a proposal for “Public Education Opportunity Grants.” CAP’s plan would provide a big infusion of federal dollars for K-12, but it would do much more than that.

The Public Education Opportunity Grants would rely on their own new formula and wouldn’t replace Title I, CAP noted. They would also target aid to high-poverty districts, incentivize states to change their funding formulas, and seek to improve resource allocation within, as well as between, districts to address racial and income-based inequities.

You can catch echoes of all that in the Biden proposal. The two blueprints aren’t identical, however: CAP envisioned $63.4 billion annually for their opportunity grants, for example.

One of the CAP proposal’s authors was Scott Sargrad, who’s now a deputy chief of staff for policy and programs at the U.S. Department of Education. Carmel Martin, who oversaw the controversial Race to the Top program at in the Obama administration’s Education Department and is now a domestic policy adviser at the White House, was a former top K-12 staffer at CAP.

What’s Congress’s track record with Title I and recent education spending?

Key federal lawmakers for education don’t seem keen on reacting to this idea one way or the other.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the chairman of the House education committee, referred us to his general comments about the Biden budget that don’t reference the grants. In a statement, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chairwoman of the Senate education committee, told us only that she looked forward to reviewing Biden’s proposals and that, “Investing in public education is an investment in our kids and our future.”

A spokeswoman for Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the chairwoman of the House appropriations committee responsible for spending legislation, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Federal lawmakers have approved nearly $200 billion in coronavirus relief over roughly the last 15 months, an unprecedented emergency outlay for K-12. And in general, the economic fallout from the pandemic has not been as dire as many predicted for state budgets.

It’s fair to wonder what the appetite is for the equity grants when states and districts have received nearly 10 times that amount in pandemic K-12 aid, in addition to hundreds of billions in general relief for state and local governments.

Those formulas, and the details in the formulas, are incredibly complex and incredibly important.

At the same time, it can be much more difficult, and potentially unwise, to drive structural changes through emergency relief as opposed to recurring funding like the equity grants.

“There’s an ongoing need for a lot of these services. And stimulus funding, although it’s not one-year, it’s one-time funding,” said Jonas Zuckerman, the director of Title I with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, who noted that he was not articulating his department’s official position on the equity grants.

Title I has its fair share of critics. There are concerns its formula doesn’t do enough to get sufficient money to students with the most acute needs. A 2019 report from the National Coalition on School Diversity argued that Title I actually encourages districts to maintain high concentrations of poverty.

Yet Title I is relatively popular, or at least generally accepted without lots of angst, on Capitol Hill. The majority of federal COVID-19 relief funding is flowing through the Title I formula to states and districts. All three pandemic aid packages relied on it.

Lawmakers also continue to provide the Title I program with regular increases in federal budgets, although those increases have been roughly a few hundred million dollars every year. In general, Democrats in charge of Congress are big fans of education funding. But that doesn’t mean they’ll approve a huge new formula program bigger than the current Title I set-up that could be a high-profile target for future cuts in a GOP-controlled Washington, leaving things like enhanced teacher compensation in the lurch.

“I don’t think there is $20 billion lying around that appropriators would put toward this program and not other priorities,” said Anne Hyslop, the director of policy development for the Alliance for Excellent Education and a former Obama Education Department staffer. “It’s just such a huge ask.”

Two efforts to revamp the Title I formula as part of negotiations over what became the Every Student Succeeds Act—the main federal K-12 law—fell short in 2015. The failure of those proposals might be largely forgotten. But Biden’s policy team might remember them because they demonstrated that such changes are difficult to pull off.

Under the equity grant plan, states would have to “demonstrate progress in improving the equity and adequacy of their funding systems” to obtain any funding increases to the $20 billion grant program, the Biden budget says. How that would work on top of the formula is unclear. Hyslop said it’s also unclear how the proposed grant program would distribute money to individual schools within districts.

I think the four things they have chosen in this proposal are all good things for the federal government to do and encourage.

Lingering, bipartisan distaste for Race to the Top could also affect interest in the equity grants. Remember that the Biden administration sought to create competitive, equity-focused grants in the American Rescue Plan earlier this year. But Congress spurned the idea.

This equity grant proposal isn’t the only way the Biden administration is demonstrating its priorities. The president’s American Families Plan blueprint includes a $200 billion proposal to expand prekindergarten access. And the American Rescue Plan includes a “maintenance of equity” provision designed to protect state and local funding for high-poverty schools. The overlapping proposals might amplify each other, even if that overlap doesn’t clarify everything.

“I think the four things they have chosen in this proposal are all good things for the federal government to do and encourage,” Hyslop said. But the grant proposal is “creating some strange bedfellows” by outlining four very different priorities that might be better served by separate, more-focused proposals, she said.

Changing state funding formulas is hard work

We don’t yet know all the important nuts and bolts of how these equity grants would work. One thing we do know is that it’s often pretty difficult for states to change their funding formulas for public schools, whatever public pressure exists for change.

As our colleague Daarel Burnette II wrote in a 2019 preview of states mulling changes to formulas that were years if not decades old, “Replacing a state’s funding formula is both complicated and politically contentious, and past efforts, for a variety of reasons, have fallen flat in many states.”

In short, the process can take a long time and involve many players, proposals, and false starts. That goes for federal funding changes too.

“Those formulas, and the details in the formulas, are incredibly complex and incredibly important,” Zuckerman said.

And state and local school leaders focused on addressing the pandemic’s effect on education might have little time or no energy left over for initiating an overhaul of how they fund schools every year.

Yet Zuckerman also said the current turmoil and challenges might make reviewing fundamental aspects of the education system, like funding, all the more important.

“Is it a good time? There’s never a good time. But is it a unique time? It’s definitely a unique time,” DeSchryver said.

Meanwhile, a recent effort from Washington to spur district-level interest in creating more equitable funding systems has been met largely with indifference.

The grant proposal pitches $50 million for “voluntary State School Funding Equity Commissions” that would highlight funding gaps and report on progress in closing them. Even if Congress adopted that idea and nothing else, DeSchryver said, it could be a helpful recognition that states are in the driver’s seat for this issue.

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