Biden Asks Congress to Double Title I on top of Stimulus Dollars: Why Is All This Money Needed?

On March 11, President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan, COVID-19 relief bill, which will provide $125.4 billion for state K-12 education programs including investments to help kids catch up, provide after-school programs, offer summer enrichment, undertake facilities upgrades and “stabilize and diversify the educator workforce and rebuild the educator pipeline.”

And on April 9, President Biden proposed doubling the annual Title I allocation in the administration’s FY 2022 federal budget proposal. Title I was created in 1965 as a federal supplement to compensate for inadequate state funding for the nation’s school districts that serve concentrations of poor children.  It has been chronically underfunded. Chalkbeat explains: “The proposal would take the Title I program from its current $16.5 billion to $36.5 billion… The budget plan also includes a boost for special education funding… more counselors, nurses, and mental health professionals in schools… more for child care and Head Start… a big increase for the relatively small Community Schools program (schools with wraparound medical and social services for families)… and more money for the Office of Civil Rights.”  Of course, Biden’s budget is just a proposal for now—the first stage in several rounds of negotiations with Congress before a final federal budget will be passed by September 30.

None of us can fully comprehend what all these billions of dollars will mean. Probably some of us wonder whether they are really needed. In fact, those of us who live in school districts able to pass regular local property tax levies might imagine that all American schools probably look like ours—adequately maintained and at least adequately staffed. But in a nation with roughly 13,500 school districts and 98,000 public schools that serve over 50 million students, most of us can grasp neither the scale of the cost of public schooling across the United States nor the alarming inequity among the schools even in our own state.

Back In 2009, when the Obama administration passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to address the impact of the 2008 Great Recession, none of us could look ahead to see what turned out to be its negative effects on public schools—the Race to the Top and School Improvement Grant Programs, for example. And with the current federal stimulus bill, like the one a dozen years ago, it is impossible to predict exactly what will happen in the next decade.  What is clear is that experts who have examined public school investment in the years since Obama’s stimulus package know that its relief dollars for public schools were inadequate. Following the Great Recession public schools took such a serious beating that in many places they had not recovered even before COVID-19 struck. There is considerable evidence today of the need for the new, one-time stimulus dollars and additionally, the long-term increase in Title I spending for the school districts across the United States that serve concentrations of poor children.

The COVID-19  pandemic has actually helped to make educational inequality visible particularly as we have all observed school districts’ unequal access to technology compounded by their students’ unequal access even to basic broadband. But experts have exposed other extremely troubling indicators which point to the importance of the size and scope of the investments President Biden is making available.

The Albert Shanker Institute’s Matthew DiCarlo describes the conclusions of research by Rutgers University school funding experts Bruce Baker and Mark Weber: “There is good news and bad news. The good news is that thousands of districts enjoy funding levels above and beyond our estimates of adequate levels…. The bad news is that these well-funded districts co-exist with thousands of other school systems, some located within driving distance or even in the next town over, where investment is so poorly aligned with need that funding levels are a fraction of estimated costs. To give a rough sense of the magnitude of the underfunding, if we add up all the negative funding gaps in these latter districts… the total is $104 billion…. (W)e report… that funding tends to be more inadequate—or less adequate—in districts with higher Census child poverty rates… We also find a negative relationship between funding inadequacy and the shares of students of color served by districts.”

In their new book, The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire elaborate on the same problem: “Almost every state reduced spending on public education during the Great Recession, but some states went much further, making deep cuts to schools, while taking aim at teachers and their unions… Moreover, states including Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, and North Carolina also moved to permanently reduce the funds available for education by cutting the taxes that pay for schools and other public services.  In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker took aim at education through Act 10—what was first called the ‘budget repair bill.’  Act 10 is remembered for stripping teachers and other public employees of their collective bargaining rights.  But it also made $2 billion in cuts to the state’s public schools.” (The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, pp. 35-36)

And in his new book, Schoolhouse Burning, constitutional scholar, Derek Black summarizes what has happened in too many states in the past decade: “Before the recession of 2008, the trend in public school funding remained generally positive… Then the recession hit. Nearly every state in the country made large cuts to public education. Annual cuts of more than $1,000 per student were routine.” But the recession wasn’t the only cause of money troubles for public schools: “(I)n retrospect…. the recession offered a convenient excuse for states to redefine their commitment to public education… By 2012, state revenues rebounded to pre-recession levels, and a few years later, the economy was in the midst of its longest winning streak in history. Yet during this period of rising wealth, states refused to give back what they took from education. In 2014, for instance, more than thirty states still funded education at a lower level than they did before the recession—some funded education 20 percent to 30 percent below pre-recession levels.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 31-33)  “(W)hen it comes to districts serving primarily middle-income students, most states provide those districts with the resources they need to achieve average outcomes… But only a couple states provide districts serving predominantly poor students what they need. The average state provides districts serving predominantly poor students $6,239 less per pupil than they need.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 241)

And last summer,  C. Kirabo Jackson, a social policy professor at Northwestern University and two colleagues released a study of the decade-long effects of the recession on school achievement nationwide despite federal stimulus in the form of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  School districts made the greatest cuts by putting off capital expenses like building maintenance and repairs. “Even so, districts still made substantial cuts to instructional spending. For every dollar in spending cuts, we find districts reduced instructional spending by $0.45, on average. Reductions in payroll costs for instructional employees account for roughly half of that amount… Districts trimmed their spending on payroll across the board, taking particular aim at the guidance office. We look at overall staff counts and find that, on average, a $1,000 decline in spending was associated with hiring 3.7 percent fewer teachers, 5.3 percent fewer instructional aides, 3.3 percent fewer library staff members, and 12 percent fewer guidance counselors. This led to roughly 0.3 more students per teacher and 80 more students per guidance counselor… (T)he spending declines that followed the Great Recession halted a five-decade-long increase in student test scores in reading and math, kicking off what some have called a ‘lost decade’ in terms of student achievement… (T)hose cuts also were associated with slower rates of college-going among students on track to become first-time college freshmen, possibly undermining some students’ momentum during a critical moment of transition from K-12 to higher education…”

School districts are already weighing the urgent needs they can address with the American Rescue Plan dollars they are set to receive.  Chalkbeat Detroit reports that in Detroit, which will receive $1.2 billion, “District leaders plan to spend about half of the funds—$613 million— on addressing a long-running facilities crisis, alleviating pressure from a mounting repair bill that the district hadn’t been able to cover.”

Chalkbeat‘s Matt Barnum and Kalyn Belsha add that in Hamtramck, a district connected geographically to Detroit, Superintendent Jaleelah Ahmed, “says the new federal aid will allow her district of 3,300 students to finally afford improvements to its buildings, some of which are so old they’re historical landmarks. First on its list: fixing windows that don’t open. Then, Ahmed is hoping to expand after-school and summer programming. That could include more dual enrollment college classes and new ways to engage students with sports, arts, or technology as they work on their English skills. More than two-thirds of her students are English learners, many of whom fled war in Yemen and have acute academic, social, and emotional needs.”

Barnum and Belsha add that in Pennsylvania’s Chester-Upland, a district which has been in receivership since 2012, Superintendent Carol Birks, “hopes to spend the money on air conditioning in schools that lack it, upgrading the district’s IT infrastructure so more students can use laptops in their classrooms, and adding tutoring for younger students… ‘Our goal is not to spend all the money in one year… We’re going to be developing a planning process of what we can take on in year one, year two, so that we do things thoughtfully, purposely, and well.'”

Clearly there are two problems to be addressed by the President’s proposed increase in Title I (assuming that Congress appropriates the funds) and the money for public schools in the American Rescue Plan: (1) a long and alarming problem of school district inequity that overlays already serious racial and economic inequality among American children, and (2) the very unequal impact of COVID-19 for families and the public schools that serve those families.  Fortunately the American Rescue Plan dollars are being distributed according to the Title I formula, which means that the bulk of the funding will be targeted to school districts serving our nation’s poorest children.

On This Holiday Honoring Dr. King, Consider the Plight of Children Today in Pennsylvania’s Chester Upland School District

Today is the holiday set aside for reflection on the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.  Peter Greene’s new history of the ruination of Pennsylvania’s Chester Upland Public Schools, published last week in Forbes, ought to be required reading on this holiday to remind us how badly our society has stumbled along the journey for justice for America’s poorest African American children.

On Wednesday, Joseph R. Biden will be inaugurated as U.S. President.  Look for a new post on Friday, January 22.

Greene explains: “As the new year begins, one Pennsylvania public school district faces the prospect of being completely dismantled and handed over to charter operators. Chester Upland School District is poised to become an example of what can happen to a public school district that needs assistance, and gets nothing but trouble instead.  CUSD has weathered every sort of challenge a district can face, but may now be on its last legs, about to make history as the first Pennsylvania district to be completely privatized.”

I have known about the tragedy in Chester Upland since the mid-1990s, but Greene explains how its segregated history goes back to the years before Brown, when the district educated Black and white children separately as a matter of policy. Greene reports that only after 1964 was Chester Upland ordered to desegregate, but middle class white flight followed, and “the 1960s saw an exodus of major employers like Ford Motor and Baldwin Locomotive. People and solid middle class jobs were both leaving, and the school district’s tax base was evaporating.”

Then came the so-called solution: accountability-based school reform. Chester Upland earned a D+ rating from the state at the same time its next-door neighbor, Wallingford-Swarthmore earned an A+: “By 1994, the district was named the worst-performing school in the state…. In 2000, the state declared the district financially distressed, meaning that they could be taken over by a state-appointed Board of Control.”  The state hired the for-profit Edison Schools to manage the Chester Upland District, until the corporation quit in 2005, saying they had not been fully paid and that ‘we were no longer going to be enough of an active agent for positive change.'”

A succession of state overseer boards followed, but in the meantime Vahan Gureghian opened the nonprofit, Chester Community Charter School, and the for-profit Charter School Management, Inc., which then became the nonprofit’s manager. Gureghian earned so much that he built a Palm Beach mansion he later sold for $84.5 million.

Some of Gureghian’s profits came from Pennsylvania’s mechanism for funding special education in charter schools at a flat rate of $40,000 per student no matter whether the child is autistic, blind, a victim of severe multiple handicaps or impaired by a speech impediment.  Greene reports that, in a court decision, Judge Chad Kenney declared: “The Charter Schools serving Chester Upland special education students reported in 2013-14… that they did not have any special education students costing them anything outside the zero to twenty-five thousand dollar range, and yet, this is remarkable considering they receive forty thousand dollars for each one of these special education students under a legislatively mandated formula.”

Still under state takeover and a succession of emergency management boards, the school district experienced escalating financial problems. Teachers went through periods when they agreed to work without pay to serve the students. Greene reports: “The recovery plan of December, 2019, laid out the troubles that faced the district. Since 2012, four recovery plans, four receivers, three chief recovery officers. Constant turnover in staff and faculty. The school district had ‘failed to maximize potential benefits from’ from previous plans, aka, the previous plans hadn’t worked.  100% of the student body eligible for free and reduced lunch; 89% Black, 7% Hispanic. Substantial amounts of ‘deferred maintenance’ and ‘underfunded capital improvements budgets’ were blamed for dropped enrollment.”

Greene continues: “At the same time, the three charter schools in Chester, even though they only covered grades K-8, had enrolled over half the students in the district. Chester Community Charter School has become the largest bricks-and-mortar charter school in the state… and Pennsylvania’s funding gap between rich and poor districts has continued to be one of the worst in the country.  Chester Upland has been on the losing side of all these issues, with the added impact of repeated, failed state takeovers, using a receivership model that puts the court-appointed receiver in charge with huge powers….”

Last September, administrative services in the school district were handed over to a Chester County regional authority, which reduced staff.  And a request for proposals was circulated “to outsource operation of the schools.”  Everyone must wait to see who gets the contract, but it looks as though Chester Upland will become an all-charter school district.  A big question involves the future of the still-public high school.

Greene concludes: “The death spiral occurs when charters strip resources from the public system, leaving that system further struggling, which fuels more parent departure for charters… What is the hope for Chester Upland schools? … State-mandated takeovers have been disastrously unsuccessful, and the state itself has left the district woefully underfunded (low test scores did not lead the state to target resources to aid the district).  Bad charter laws have striped them of funding they could not spare, and returned results that seem no better…. The district’s story is complicated… but the lesson is simple.  When a district is segregated, abandoned, underfunded, and deprived of resources, it suffers.  And when the state, rather than aiding it, allows it to be picked over and fed upon by private for-profit businesses, it suffers more, creating the possibility of a community that is no longer able to fulfill the promise of a free public education for all of its children.”

This is the story of one Pennsylvania school district. But the story of a state experimenting with state takeovers and charter management companies and a state failing to provide help for Its poorest school districts is about more than Pennsylvania. What Greene describes is also the story of Rick Snyder’s school district emergency managers in Michigan—the story of Benton Harbor, Muskegon Heights, and Highland Park.  It is the story of the Ohio state takeovers of Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland.  It is the story of charter school expansion in Gary, Indiana. It is the New Jersey story of decades of school district takeovers in Paterson and Newark and Camden. It is the story of state governments looking for cheap, trendy ways to shed responsibility for educating the Black and Brown children in America’s poorest and most racially segregated communities.  It is also the story of charter school entrepreneurs who profit from power and political connections at the expense of poor children.