As you know, over last weekend Congress passed an omnibus appropriations bill to get us through the fiscal year to the end of next September. This was all very theatrical as the ideologues postured and threatened to stop the government. Despite the atmosphere of crisis, however, a bill was passed, and if you look at how the money was appropriated in particular areas, it is possible to observe some trends. Let’s look at the federal appropriations for public education as an example.
Remember that the federal investment in education is relatively small at $70.5 billion. While federal policy affects what happens in public schools across the states, the federal government isn’t really a big financial player in education. According to the New America Foundation, “States and local governments typically provide about 44 percent each of all elementary and secondary education funding. The federal government contributes about 12 percent of all direct expenditures.”
But spending trends in federal policy set an important direction, and in its spending bill for Fiscal Year 2015 (October 2014–end of September 2015) Congress did not appropriate any money for the competitive Race to the Top program. Another competitive grant program, Investing in Innovation, was cut by $21.6 million. School Improvement Grants, the other big competition for money for so called “failing” schools did survive, though the entire program is flat-funded at $506 million.
By eliminating funding for Race to the Top and adding a little bit of extra funding to each of the huge civil rights formula programs, Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Congress made a statement, though its action is symbolic rather than substantive. Title I is the $14.4 billion program that provides extra funding for public schools that serve a large number or a high percentage of children in poverty. It is the signature program of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, passed in 1965 as part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. The $11.5 billion IDEA, originally passed in 1975, pays a small percentage of the costs of federally mandated services for children with special needs (with local school districts making up the rest). Both of these critically important formula programs got an added $25 million, an incremental increase. If you remember that public schools across the United States serve roughly 50 million children and adolescents, you can see that these increases are merely symbolic.
Why do these almost pitiful increases matter? Because they seem to indicate that Congress is turning away from Arne Duncan’s competitive grants and toward the time-honored formula programs designed to assist public school with their core educational function. Race to the Top and Innovations money almost never hired teachers to reduce class size; school districts most often used the money for one-time investments like technology or staff development. After all, a time-limited grant should not be used to cover ongoing operations.
Also the U.S. Department of Education conditioned these grant programs on getting states to adopt what have been very controversial priorities of Arne Duncan’s Department of Education. To qualify, states had to promise to evaluate teachers based on students’ test scores and agree to controversial turnaround plans that included school closure and privatization. And states had to agree they would adopt “college- and career-ready” standards, which in practice meant they were agreeing to adopt the Common Core and accompanying tests designed by the big publishing companies who will consequently reap enormous profits. The Common Core has become extremely controversial.
The Obama administration has modeled its trademark education programs on the way philanthropic foundations award funds: through competition. A serious problem is that races with winners always create losers. As the Department of Education diverted some Title I funds into competitive programs rather than simply awarding them through the formula, federal support for expanded access to education increasingly became a right only for poor children in winning states and school districts. Late in 2012, for example, a round of Race to the Top chose 16 school districts from among 372 applicants to share $400 million. These were relatively small school districts, together serving only 21,000 students. My favorite comment from the Rev. Jesse Jackson describes the moral dilemma: “There are those who would make the case for a Race to the Top for those who can run (or in the case of the federal grants, for those whose school districts can hire the best grant-proposal writers). Instead ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”
The federal government’s role in public education has historically been to ensure that public schools are better equipped to serve everybody by making up at least to some degree for the incapacity or unwillingness of particular states to ensure equity. Through formula programs like Title I for schools in impoverished communities, the IDEA for the education of students with special needs, and funding for the education of English language learners—the relatively small financial role of the federal government in education has been leveraged to ensure that public schools across the states can meet the needs and secure the rights of all children. In its 2015 appropriations bill, with a small nod to the formula programs and away from competitive programs, Congress seems to be moving in the right direction.