The conversation in Congress about a possible reauthorization of the federal education law—called No Child Left Behind in 2002 when the most recent version was signed into law—-may seem really “in the weeds,” too wonky really to take in. And it’s an even more baffling conversation because the politics seem all confused with the Democratic administration of Barack Obama supporting the annual high stakes testing that was brought to us originally by a Republican, George W. Bush.
But there is one aspect of this discussion that is urgently important as a matter of justice, and it is playing out along party lines. The subject is Title I Portablity — something that Republicans have introduced into their proposed bills in both the Senate and House.
Here is some history: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was first passed as part of the War on Poverty in 1965. Title I, the centerpiece of that law, was designed to provide what was called “compensatory” funding to schools and school districts that serve either a large number or large concentration of children in poverty. It was designed to try to protect the rights of very poor children in states that were not spending nearly enough on the education of children living in poverty. Proposals for something called Title I Portability in both Republican proposals being discussed right now in the Senate and the House of Representatives would destroy how the Title I formula works to protect the rights and meet the needs of our nation’s poorest children.
In both Senate and House proposed bills, a flat amount of money would be allocated for each poor child, and the child would carry that funding to whatever public school the child attends. There would no longer be a formula that weights the federal Title I amount—with additional money following children who attend school in districts with concentrated poverty.
Here is how the National Coalition for Public Education (NCPE), an organization of 50 education, civic, civil rights and religious organizations, explains the purpose of the Title I formula and the threat posed by Title I Portability: “Congress adopted Title I in 1965 to ensure that districts and schools serving large concentrations of students in poverty received a greater portion of federal funds to address the compounded impact of poverty on student learning. High-poverty school districts and schools benefit from increased federal investment by taking advantage of ‘economies of scale’ to combine resources for school-wide services and whole school reforms targeted at economically and academically needy groups of students.”
Members of NCPE oppose Republican proposals to “provide states the option of making Title I funding ‘portable’ by allowing the money to follow the child to a public school. This proposal would undermine Title I’s fundamental purpose of assisting public schools with high concentrations of poverty and high-need students.” “Under current law, districts make local decisions about how to best use their Title I funding. This allows them to ‘pool’ Title I funds so that the highest poverty schools in the district receive the funds. For decades, districts have also chosen to invest their Title I funds primarily in their highest poverty elementary schools because addressing student learning needs at the earliest age possible produces the greatest return on investment. Districts, working with principals and school leaders, can also further target their federal dollars toward specific students within a school based on their economic needs. Portablity would divest local school districts, principals, and other school leaders of this important decision making authority….”
The Center on American Progress (CAP) has also published a brief opposing Title I Portability. According to CAP, letting the money follow the poor child—the definition of Title I Portability—“ignores the long-known fact that socioeconomic isolation has a devastating impact on student learning and achievement outcomes. Simply put the challenges that low-income students face are significantly greater when the majority of their classmates are also low income.” CAP estimates that, on average, school districts with highly concentrated family poverty would lose $85 per student while more affluent school districts would gain, on average, $290 per student. Funding would be less targeted, its impact diluted. Chicago would lose $64 million, CAP estimates, and the Los Angeles Unified School District $75 million.
CAP calls the idea of Title I Portability “Robin Hood in Reverse”—“taking from the poor and giving to the rest.”