As Congress mulls a rewrite to the federal education law, two potential revisions to Washington’s largest grant program for low-income public school students highlight a classic minefield for lawmakers: how to steer changes to funding formulas to safety.
Two separate proposals to alter how Title I funding works are part of negotiations over the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. One would direct more money to many Southern and Western states, while the other would favor small and mid-size districts.
The plans, however, are drawing criticism, particularly from big urban districts that fear they would unfairly lose out.
Included in the Senate ESEA bill passed earlier this year is a far-reaching proposal offered by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., that would provide more total Title I aid to roughly two-thirds of states. But his plan sparked a backlash among some of his Senate colleagues, whose states—several of them in the Northeast and Midwest—would concurrently lose money. The compromise that grew out of that disagreement creates a potential long-term political fight over total levels of Title I funding.
A separate, narrower Title I change in the House ESEA reauthorization bill by Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., is designed to direct more resources to small and mid-size districts with relatively high concentrations of poverty.
Burr’s plan has a broader impact, but what Thompson wants could result in a relatively large windfall for some smaller and rural districts, in the neighborhood of a few hundred dollars in higher per-student aid a year, said Julia Martin, the legislative director at Brustein and Manasevit, a law firm that focuses on federal education programs.
“Theoretically, the way they’re written, you could put both of them in a conference bill,” said Martin of the proposed Title I changes from Burr and Thompson. “But that’s a huge change to make to the formulas in one bill. That makes it a little bit more difficult.”
Apart from any tricky policy details, the political prospects of both bills may have been significantly damaged last month after Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, announced his decision to leave Congress and the speakership. Key lawmakers for K-12, however, have said they’ll continue to work in conference to produce a report for both chambers of Congress to vote on, despite turmoil in the House over new leadership.
Current Title I funding is about $14.5 billion. The size of the grant program has remained roughly at that level for the last several years.
Right now, Title I money runs through four different formulas: basic, concentration, targeted, and education finance incentive grants. The plans from Burr and Thompson make changes to certain weights that impact the formulas; these weights take into account the number as well as the concentration of low-income students in districts. Right now, those weights impact the distribution of Title I aid in different ways.
‘Is This Fair?’
Under Burr’s amendment, a new formula for calculating Title I aid would use a national calculation of K-12 expenditures, instead of relying on local expenditures. It would maintain but modify Title I formula weights based on population. And it would no longer consider the “effort factor,” which Title I uses by measuring states’ per-student spending in proportion to states’ per-capita personal income.
Both the House and Senate bills to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would change how much states and districts get under the Title I grant program that targets low-income students. But they do so in different ways.
Sen. Richard Burr’s Plan
- Burr, a R-N.C., successfully pushed to have the Senate bill shift more money to states in the South and West, where he says many schools have traditionally been shortchanged by Title I.
- A majority of states (35) would see their Title I aid rise under Burr’s proposal, which would not kick in until overall Title I spending increases to $17 billion.
- Critics argue that Burr’s plan leaves many poor students out in the cold and doesn’t consider cost-of-living factors. States including Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania would lose aid.
Rep. Glenn Thompson’s Plan
- Thompson, R-Pa., succeeded in having the House ESEA bill direct more aid to smaller and mid-size districts with relatively high concentrations of poverty.
- Supporters say it’s a more equitable Title I plan because concentrations of poverty, not just large numbers of low-income students, have an outsized impact on education in districts.
- Backers of big-city districts say costly and complex problems unique to urban poverty would make the House Bill’s change to Title I an unfair redistribution of aid.
In the end, according to estimates from the Congressional Research Service,. Those include a 21 percent increase for Utah, the biggest percentage hike for any state, and increases of $130 million for California and $112 million for Florida.
In a, Burr defended his proposed change by citing disparities in Title I dollars available for poor students in different cities. He cited the $1,158 in Title I aid per student allotted in Albuquerque, N.M., that falls well below the $1,717 in aid per student in New Haven, Conn., and also asked in the post, “Is This Fair?”
But some analysts and advocates are far from enamored with Burr’s proposal.
For example, an analysis published last summer by EdBuild, a group that studies school finance, criticized Burr’s plan for how it essentially punishes states that might deserve the opposite.
The group reported that 11 of the 15 states that would lose Title I aid under Burr’s plan currently spend more than the national median per-pupil, serve more total low-income students than the national median, and serve more students in districts with high rates of poverty.
The Burr amendment correctly tries to help many smaller districts in particular with large pockets of poverty, said Scott Sargrad, the director for standards and accountability at the Center for American Progress. But he argued that it only does so “in a way that exacerbates other problems.”
There’s another twist. After tricky negotiations over the Burr amendment, senators voted to have it take effect only when annual Title I appropriations hit $17 billion. Even then, Burr’s new formula would only apply to dollars above that $17 billion threshold.
The likelihood of Title I appropriations reaching $17 billion any time soon, in what would represent a 17 percent increase to current funding without any inflation adjustment, could be quite low.
“Nothing quite tackles the entirety of the problem with the current formula,” Sargrad said of the two proposed Title I changes.
Equity or Cannibalism
In his own plan, Thompson, the Pennsylvania congressman, wants to phase out the weighting in the targeted and finance grant formulas in Title I that can favor large districts with lower rates of students from low-income backgrounds. As a result, he has said, those smaller and mid-size districts that actually have higher rates of students in poverty can trail some of their urban counterparts in amounts of Title I aid.
Supporters for the version of Thompson’s plan that made it into the House bill said it will help districts like those in Flint, Mich., and Laredo, Texas, that face special challenges in educating relatively high concentrations of Title I students, regardless of how many students they serve.
“Smaller, poorer districts lose, even though they’re using the formula to maximize their dollars. They have higher poverty rates, but they get less money per child,” Noelle Ellerson, an associate executive director with the AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said of the current Title I formulas. “It seems like it’s a rural-urban issue, but really it’s a small-large district issue.”
But not everyone agrees. Part of the big flaw in Thompson’s proposal is that poverty in big cities is simply more difficult and more expensive to deal with than what their suburban and rural brethren face, said Jeff Simering, the legislative director for the Council of the Great City Schools.
Citing National Center for Education Statistics data, Simering also said that depending on how the numbers are interpreted, up to five times the share of students in big-city districts attend schools with high concentrations of poverty (schools with more than 75 percent of students in poverty) than their rural counterparts.
Those factors, he said, make Thompson’s plan a misguided attempt at the redistribution of money away from big urban districts.
“People wind up looking to cannibalize one another, as opposed to actually having a really substantive look at the equity of the Title I formula and seeing if there are any changes to be made,” Simering said.
Fluidity in the Future
Simering sees flaws in the Burr proposal as well, stating that the majority of U.S. districts would actually lose money under the senator’s amendment. He also faulted it for not including a cost-of-living factor that would treat big-city schools more fairly.
The Burr plan probably has a more difficult road ahead in the conference committee, according to Martin of Brustein Manasevit. Because formula changes without increased appropriations (which neither the House nor Senate bill includes) are often unpopular, it’s also possible neither Title I change makes it to the final congressional votes.
And the funding trigger in Burr’s bill in particular serves to illuminate more uncertainty around Title I dollars.
Well before lawmakers appropriate $17 billion for Title I, if they ever do, states could see notable shifts in their demographics and poverty rates, noted Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding. Key senators could depart and shift support for Burr’s plan.
And before the $17 billion bar is cleared, lawmakers might even be considering yet another version of ESEA to replace any bill that President Barack Obama might sign.
Any or all of those factors could render Burr’s proposal moot.
“If you measure it three years from now, different states could win, and different states could lose,” Packer said. “It’s not a static thing.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 2015 edition of Education Week as Proposals Vary On Rethinking Title I Funding