Federal

Usually Contentious Title I Formula Is No NCLB Barrier

By David J. Hoff — December 03, 2007 7 min read
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For all of this year’s debate about the future of testing, accountability, and other policy issues around the No Child Left Behind Act, virtually no one has brought up the question of how best to give out billions of dollars a year under the law.

Until 2001, debate over the allocation of funding often dominated efforts to revise the main federal K-12 law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Members of Congress concentrated on how to distribute money to the point, sometimes, of overshadowing other policy discussions.

But that hasn’t been the case in the early work to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind law, the current version of the ESEA, even though the nearly 6-year-old law has dramatically shifted the distribution of money under the $12.8 billion Title I program for disadvantaged students. The changes have benefited the nation’s largest cities, as well as suburban areas with pockets of poverty.

“The increase in targeting of federal aid in NCLB is a success story that nobody knows about,” said Michael Dannenberg, the director of the education policy program for the Washington-based New America Foundation. In 2001, Mr. Dannenberg worked as an aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and who advocated a formula that helped districts with large concentrations or numbers of students eligible for Title I services.

For all its success in targeting Title I money, the NCLB law still includes elements that are unfair, according to Mary Kusler, the assistant director of government relations for the American Association of School Administrators, based in Arlington, Va. Under the current formula, districts with high enrollments and relatively low poverty rates receive more money per Title I pupil than districts with small enrollments and high poverty rates, she said.

“A lot of schools that need it the most aren’t getting the money they need because they’re small,” Ms. Kusler said. Still, the Title I distribution formula hasn’t been seriously debated this year, either in advocacy groups’ proposals to change the NCLB law or in a “discussion draft” bill offered by the House Education and Labor Committee to reauthorize it.

“We do not see the need to change the Title I formula, and no one has asked us to change it,” said Tom Kiley, a spokesman for Democrats on the House education panel, whose August draft bill would keep the formula intact. “We believe we should target Title I funds to the neediest schools.”

A New Direction

Congress made several significant policy shifts with its 2001 passage of the No Child Left Behind law, which reauthorized Title I and other programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that was first adopted in 1965.

The Title I program is designed to assist low-achieving disadvantaged students and provides grants to districts to hire teachers and provide instructional programs aimed at that population. It is the largest program under the NCLB law.

Under the NCLB legislation, which President Bush signed into law in January 2002, the federal government is holding schools accountable for increasing student achievement and is dictating a series of interventions in Title I schools and districts where student are not on pace to be proficient in reading and mathematics by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

While crafting the NCLB law, President Bush and congressional supporters emphasized its goal of closing the gaps in achievement between white and black students, and between non-Hispanic whites and Hispanic students. That created the environment for directing a greater portion of Title I to needy districts.

Until the passage of NCLB, Congress appropriated Title I money—$8.5 billion in the 2001 fiscal year—under two formulas: basic grants and concentration grants. The basic grants, which received $7.1 billion in 2001, flow to just about every school district in the nation. The concentration grants, which received $1.4 billion in 2001, are reserved for districts with more than 6,500 Title I students or 15 percent of their enrollments eligible for Title I.

Congress had created two other Title I grant programs when it reauthorized the ESEA in 1994. The targeted grants and state finance-incentive grants are designed to increase aid to the neediest districts.

But Congress had never put money into the two other programs because of lawmakers’ desire to spread money across school districts benefiting from the basic and concentration grants and to protect those districts from losses in federal aid.

With the stated goal of the NCLB law to close achievement gaps between less-advantaged and more-advantaged groups of students, Congress agreed to put all money above fiscal 2001 levels into the two formulas that target money at districts with the most poverty. Even though the concentration grants assist more needy schools than the basic grants do, Congress chose the newer formulas because they are better at directing Title I money to schools with the highest levels of poverty.

“Closing the achievement gap was such an overriding theme in 2001,” said Charles Barone, an aide to Democrats on the House education committee during the creation of the NCLB law, “that it was hard to argue that that’s not the way the funds should flow.”

Gradual Changes

Under the fiscal 2007 federal budget, 36 percent of Title I money is being distributed using the new formulas. Although the 2007 federal fiscal year ended Sept. 30, money from that budget finances Title I programs in the 2007-08 school year.

Under the fiscal 2008 education spending bill that President Bush vetoed in November, 43 percent of Title I money would have been distributed under the new formulas. Congress failed to override the veto and is working to resolve its differences with the president by Dec. 14.

The use of the additional formulas has had a significant impact, according to data collected by the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that has closely tracked the NCLB law.

Since 2001, some of the nation’s largest urban districts—including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami-Dade County, Philadelphia, and Houston—have received increases in their Title I grants that were greater than the 33 percent increase in federal appropriations over that period. The increases have been as much as 64 percent, according to the CEP analysis done at the request of Education Week.

As an example of how the formula changes have affected low-poverty districts, Title I funding fell by more than 40 percent or more in districts serving some wealthier communities, such as Princeton, N.J., and Mineola, N.Y.

While such districts probably felt the loss of federal aid, they are able to make up for it with local money, said Mr. Barone, who is now an education consultant based in Ventnor, N.J.

“Those districts do fine under their own property-tax structures,” he said.

The new format still spreads the money too thinly, according to Ms. Kusler and Marty Strange, the policy director for the Rural School and Community Trust, an Arlington, Va.-based advocacy group.

The targeted and state finance-incentive formulas are distributed to districts based on either the number or the percentage of a district’s Title I students. That method rewards districts with high numbers of poor students, even if the poverty rates in such districts are relatively low, Mr. Strange said.

Since 2001, some districts—particularly ones serving large suburban counties—have benefited under the new formula, while rural districts with higher concentrations of poverty are getting less money per Title I pupil.

“These [rural] kids are being penalized because they are not herded into one place,” Mr. Strange said. “It’s an anti-rural and anti-small [district] bias.”

An Imperfect Method

In the data collected by the Center for Education Policy, the Fairfax County, Va., and Montgomery County, Md., districts have received Title I increases of more than 50 percent since 2001. Both counties, located in suburban Washington, include some of the highest-income ZIP codes in the country as well as pockets of low-income households.

Supporters of the current way Title I money is distributed acknowledge that the method isn’t perfect, but they say that it is much better than before Congress passed the NCLB law.

Before 2001, some wealthy districts received more Title I money per pupil eligible for the program than some districts serving some of the poorest students, said Kevin Carey, the research and policy manager for Education Sector, a Washington think tank.

Now, he said, the money is “very targeted towards high-poverty schools, which is something that progressive people rightly say we should do.”

The debate now is on how much money Title I should receive, he added.

“All of the energy and focus is on the total dollar amount,” Mr. Carey said. “The question of how to split [the money] up has been subsumed.” Law’s biggest program has targeted more aid to the neediest districts

A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2007 edition of Education Week as Usually Contentious Title I Formula Is No NCLB Barrier

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