Arne Duncan: Do Not Sacrifice Title I through Inconsistent Enforcement of Rules

Title I is the federal civil rights program created in 1965 as the centerpiece of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to help equalize opportunity by sending federal money to schools serving a large number or high concentration of very poor children.  President Lyndon Johnson believed that childhood poverty is deeply connected to school achievement; Title I was a part of Johnson’s War on Poverty.  While the Title I formula has never been fully funded by Congress, Title I has historically been a primary federal tool for  equalizing educational opportunity as a civil right for every child.

Today, however, the Obama Administration’s Department of Education (DOE) persists in redesigning Title I.  In 2009, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan began transforming Title I from a formula program into competitions like Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants.  A much discussed problem with the DOE’s competitive grants is that competitions with winners always create losers, which means that federal support for expanded access to education is increasingly becoming a right for poor children only in winning states and school districts.  It has also become apparent that too much money is going to grant writers and consultants and too little reaching the classroom.

Now we learn that receipt of Title I funding is also being conditioned on states’ complying with the DOE’s requirements for states to earn waivers from the impossible requirements and sanctions of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  On Saturday, in Why Arne Duncan Is Threatening to Withhold Funds for Poor Kids, Valerie Strauss devoted her Washington Post column to a problem arising from tying Title I grants to conditions set through the regulations of the DOE instead of through a uniform formula approved by Congress and applied nationally.

According to Strauss: “Education Secretary Arne Duncan is threatening to withhold some of the approximately $1.5 billion that California receives annually from the federal Title I program… if state officials don’t agree to implement a standardized-testing regime that he likes…  California passed a law (AB 484) to abandon the standardized tests that have been given to students for years because the state adopted the Common Core standards and is revamping its curriculum.  The old tests don’t reflect the new curriculum, so it would seem to make infinite sense that kids should no longer have to take them.  While new tests aligned with the Common Core are being designed, state officials want to replace the old tests with a limited version of the exams that are coming in 2015—but only in those districts that have the technology to administer the exams, which are to be done on computers…  But here’s the problem: The No Child Left Behind law which Congress was supposed to have rewritten in 2007, remains in force and mandates annual exams.  To implement this plan, California would need a waiver from the U.S. Education Department….”

California’s original application for a NCLB waiver was rejected because California would not agree to use students’ standardized-test scores to evaluate teachers, one of the conditions to which Arne Duncan says states must agree to qualify for a waiver.  And, according to Strauss, at this point Secretary Duncan “takes a dim view of AB 484 because not all students would take a test this year, as the law requires, and because the state would not release the results of this practice run…”

This is, of course, a technical disagreement about enforcement of rules.  It is also a predictable consequence of a situation in which a federal department is administering a policy that affects each state’s Title I money on the fly through waivers for which each state must apply and negotiate, waivers that require state compliance with administrative rules emanating from the DOE in a way that is neither uniform nor consistent.

Strauss concludes that Duncan is selectively enforcing NCLB.  In addition, “He is trying to come down hard on California as a way of warning other states not to try to defy the Education Department.” “It’s no wonder some people are accusing Duncan of using strong-arm tactics to force states to do what he wants in education.”

This is all so complicated that it is easy not to pay attention.  But the controversy matters:  a civil rights formula program created to assist school districts that serve impoverished communities is being undermined as the programs are made competitive and as waivers are inconsistently approved and implemented.  The Title I formula is a  fairer, more supportive, and less confusing way of helping the school districts and schools that serve our poorest children.

Our most urgent educational priority as a society must be to invest in improving the public schools in our poorest communities rather than punishing them, punishing their teachers, closing these schools, or privatizing them.  This is, of course, precisely what the Title I formula was intended to do.

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