As federal funding meant to help the most disadvantaged students makes its way from the halls of the U.S. Capitol down to individual schools, the dollars intended to help poor and minority students are often diverted from the most needy students, concludes a report released today by the Education Trust.
In a new analysis of how Title I funds are distributed, the Washington-based research and advocacy organization looked at how the $12.7 billion program funnels money from the federal government to the states and to local districts. The “Funding Gaps 2006” report found that the money doesn’t end up where it could help students who need it most. This issue is critical, the report’s authors say, as educators are working toward closing the educational achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their more affluent peers.
“As our national education ambitions have grown bigger and bigger, we have not updated our school finance policies to reflect this new national reality,” said Goodwin Liu, a co-author of the study and a co-director of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity, and Diversity at the University of California at Berkeley.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act calls for all students to reach proficiency standards by 2014.
The study’s analysis of Title I dollars shows that the formula used to dole out funds from the largest federal education program reinforces the funding gaps between the poorest and wealthiest states. The money is allocated based in part on how much each state spends per pupil on education, he said. So a state that spends more of its own money on each student will also get more federal Title I money for each student. Maryland, for example, had fewer poor children than Arkansas but received 51 percent more Title I aid per poor child, according to the report.
“If our national aspiration is to ensure that all kids achieve proficiency, the way we fund our schools doesn’t resemble that at all,” Mr. Liu said. “If we were serious about closing achievement gaps we wouldn’t be giving the least resources to the states that spend the least on them. We would give the most to them to compensate.”
That’s not a new argument, said Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va. “The question is, if the citizens of a state elect not to fund education very well, should the federal government reward that?” he said. “The last two times this question was asked, Congress answered negatively.”
Necessary First Steps
The Title I allocation formula was set up in part to reflect the reality that a dollar in New York state doesn’t go as far as a dollar in Arkansas, Mr. Liu said. However, there are now much more sophisticated ways to adjust for cost factors and when that is done, large disparities remain, he said. The report suggests reforms that include altering the Title I formula.
Concerns about funding distribution, particularly when it comes to Title I, have been raised before, said Brenda Welburn, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of State Boards of Education.
Ms. Welburn said states realize some districts have a higher percentage of disadvantaged students, but that other districts also have students who need to be served by Title I.
The report notes that the problem is not limited to federal funds. State revenue, too, is distributed inconsistently, said Ross Wiener, the policy director for the Education Trust, and a co-author of the study along with Eli Pristoop, an Education Trust data analyst who studied the distribution of state education funding over several years.
After examining 14,000 school districts in the 2003-04 school year, Mr. Wiener and Mr. Pristoop concluded that often districts with the most students living in poverty don’t get the most state education aid. After adjusting for the additional costs of educating poor students, they found that, on average, states and localities spend $908 less per student in districts educating the greatest number of minority students and $825 less per student in districts educating the most low-income students compared with what is spent in the wealthiest districts. But they also found that there are states, such as Massachusetts and Kentucky, that target more money to high-poverty districts.
“A lot of people believe that we either provide equal resources in all schools or that because of programs like Title I we actually provide more resources in high poverty schools and that’s not the case,” Mr. Wiener said. “We need to acknowledge that we haven’t done some of the first steps that could help us make more progress.”
‘People Are Frustrated’
But even within school districts, the money isn’t allocated so that it reaches the poorest students, according to co-author Marguerite Roza, a research assistant professor at the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington in Seattle. An analysis by Ms. Roza found that on paper it appeared that more federal, state, and local education dollars were flowing to high-poverty and high-minority schools, but a closer look at overall budgeting showed otherwise.
A prime example is teachers’ salaries, she said in an interview. Schools with many disadvantaged students often have the least experienced teachers earning the lowest salaries, resulting in a funding gap compared with schools with more experienced, higher-paid teachers.
“There’s a real commitment to closing the achievement gap, but the problem is we haven’t been able to do that and people are frustrated by our progress,” Ms. Roza said. “But you want to make sure the system itself isn’t working against the kids.”