Trump’s K-12 Education Budget Expands Choice, Won’t Help Public Schools Meet Myriad Needs

On Wednesday, the Washington Post acquired a leaked, near final copy of the budget the Department of Education is preparing as part of President Trump’s full budget proposal scheduled for release on May 23. This document reflects the same priorities outlined in what was called “the skinny budget,” released in mid-March.

Andrew Ujifusa of Education Week summarizes the overall direction of the proposal leaked on Wednesday: “President Donald Trump’s full education budget proposal for fiscal 2018 would make notable cuts to the U.S. Department of Education and leverage existing programs for disadvantaged students and K-12 innovation to promote school choice…. Trump’s full education funding blueprint would cut $9.2 billion, or 13.6 percent, from the Education Department’s current $68 billion budget….”

Ujifusa continues, describing the “Title I Portability” plan which is part of the proposal that surfaced Wednesday: “Also, the spending plan calls for the creation of a new, $1 billion federal grant program under Title I to allow students to take federal, state, and local dollars to their public school of choice.  That money would be added to the $15.9 billion Title I receives this budget year….”  Ujifsa reminds us that currently Title I funding is distributed entirely by formula.

Keep in mind that Title I Portability would undermine the purpose of Title I, as it was designed in the original 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act: providing supplementary funding for school districts serving concentrations of children in poverty. Helping the public schools that serve our nation’s poorest children is a big problem because our society is becoming more segregated economically. Under Trump’s Title I Portability proposal, if a poor student were to transfer to a wealthier public school district, that child would carry her funding, including the extra Title I money. The poor district—still in need of help because it is serving a mass of poor children, including a significant homeless population as well as students who are part of the county’s foster care system—would lose the Title I dollars intended to help its schools.

The Washington Post‘s Emma Brown, Valerie Strauss and Danielle Douglas-Gabriel collaborated to explain the many implications of the documents they received Wednesday. They describe the new $1 billion added to Title I to encourage school districts to undertake or expand existing school choice programs: “Though Trump and DeVos are proponents of local control, their proposal to use federal dollars to entice districts to adopt school-choice policies is reminiscent of the way the Obama administration offered federal money to states that agreed to adopt its preferred education policies through a program called Race to the Top.”

While the added $1 billion to Title I would help develop and expand school choice, it appears that the Title I formula itself would receive the same funding as it has in the current fiscal year—with one adjustment. The Post‘s reporters explain: “Under the administration’s budget, two of the department’s largest expenditures in K-12 education, special education and Title I funds to help poor children, would remain unchanged compared to federal funding levels in the first half of fiscal 2017.  However, high-poverty schools are likely to receive fewer dollars than in the past because of a new law that allows states to use up to 7 percent of Title I money for school improvement before distributing it to districts.”

Like the “skinny budget” released in March, the document leaked on Wednesday increases the $333 million federal Charter Schools Program to $500 million, a 50 percent increase, despite that this program has been condemned for poor oversight in reports from the U.S. Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General.

What about the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights?  In the recent 2017 budget agreement for the next six months, Congress had increased funding for the Office for Civil Rights. Next year’s proposal cuts funding back to what it was for the first half of 2017.  The Post‘s reporters explain: “The spending proposal would result in the loss of more than 40 of roughly 570 positions.”

The Post‘s reporters list K-12 programs slated for elimination in the U.S. Department of Education including the $1.2 billion, 21st Century Learning After-School Program that currently serves 1.6 million low income children and $2.1 billion for teacher training and class size reduction along with smaller stand-alone programs: “a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.”  Other long-standing federal budget allocations would be reduced—for career and technical education, adult basic literacy instruction, and Promise Neighborhoods.  Further, “The Trump administration would dedicate no money to a fund for student support and academic enrichment that is meant to help schools pay for, among other things, mental-health services, anti-bullying initiatives, physical education, Advanced Placement courses and science and engineering instruction.”

While some of these programs may seem insignificant compared to the bigger IDEA and Title I budget lines, it is essential to remember that public schools must serve children with more needs than even well funded districts can accommodate. School administrators routinely and skillfully stitch together dollars from many smaller federal and state funding lines to create programming for a wide range of students. The loss of federal dollars to reduce class size, for example, will ripple through an entire school district and affect other programming—perhaps the case load for school counselors or the presence of librarians or school nurses—that school administrators might consider less urgent in order to keep classes small.

The Post‘s reporters remind us that when Trump’s “skinny budget” was released in March, Senator Lamar Alexander, chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, commented that while the president may suggest a budget, “under the Constitution, Congress passes appropriations bills.”  Keep in mind that in 2015, when Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Alexander was a strong proponent of Title I Portability, but Congress did not enact such a plan.

On Wednesday in Education Week, Ujifusa asked Rep. Jared Polis, the ranking Democrat on the House subcommittee for K-12 education, for his views on Title I Portability: “Polis… slammed the budget proposal in general, saying that the proposal to make some Title I money portable ‘undermines the intent of Title I’ by shifting money away from schools with high-levels of poverty to wealthier schools. And he said it would damage prospects for low-income students and their families.”

The budget draft leaked to the Washington Post on Wednesday also includes significant reductions for programs in higher education.  This blog will explore some of the implications for college loan programs, work study, and higher education in upcoming weeks. For information on the meaning of the budget proposal for higher education, please consult: the Washington Post‘s primary article, Trump’s First Full Education Budget; a second explanation for the Post by Danielle Douglas-Gabriel, Trump and DeVos Plan to Reshape Higher Education Finance; and a third piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Trump’s Budget Could Eliminate Public-Service Loan Forgiveness.

Many Predict Trump-DeVos Will Privatize with Tuition Tax Credits, Not Plain Old Vouchers

Everyone is wondering exactly how President Donald Trump’s and Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos’s plans for expanding privatization of public education will play out. Two upcoming events may provide more details.  It has been predicted that the President will lay out his priorities when he releases his budget proposal in mid-March. Even before that, however, in a major address tomorrow to a joint session of Congress, he has said he’ll outline his policy priorities. Here is Politico commenting on what is expected from tomorrow’s address: “White House officials said that after a first month driven almost entirely by policies they could enact unilaterally, the joint congressional address will focus on work the White House wants done on Capitol Hill during the rest of 2017.”

The President and his education secretary have said they will expand the privatization of education but how that will happen isn’t yet clear. One member of the House of Representatives has already introduced a bill to eliminate the federal education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (now called the Every Student Succeeds Act) entirely and redirect the money now spent on Title I, ESEA’s primary program, to a school choice expansion. Others predict that Trump and DeVos will expand the one existing federal voucher program in Washington, D.C.

Some have suggested that Trump will convince Congress to go back to tinker with ESSA and pass a program Lamar Alexander and other conservatives endorsed back in 2015, Title I Portability—the idea that each poor child would be able to carry a designated amount of extra money to any public school that child chose to attend. Title I Portability was never broadly endorsed in Congress, however, because it would defeat the primary purpose of Title I, which was designed to address concentrations of poverty in particular school districts.  Schools educating concentrations of children whose families are extremely poor face an overwhelming set of challenges.  In its excellent (2010) book, Organizing Schools for Improvement, the Consortium on Chicago School Research documented the challenges for schools in neighborhoods where over 90 percent of children live in extreme poverty: “An endemic concern for urban schoolteachers are the students in their classrooms with extraordinary personal and social needs. Many urban children live under unstable home and community circumstances, including homelessness, domestic violence, abuse, and neglect. In such circumstances, a most basic need for healthy child development—stable, dependable relationships with caring adults— may not always be present… At both the classroom and the school level, the good efforts of even the best of educators are likely to be seriously taxed when confronted with a high density of students who are in foster care, homeless, neglected, abused….” (pp. 172-173)

It now appears more likely, however, that while Trump is likely to enlarge the federal Washington, D.C. voucher program, any program on a national scale will expand school choice through tuition tax credits.  Here is Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post: “Is there enough support in Congress to close the Education Department and create a federal voucher program for America’s schoolchildren?  No, according to people on Capitol Hill who are familiar with the issue, though a pilot federal voucher program is possible. Still, Trump has said he wants to spend $20 billion in federal funds to expand school choice, and the Hill sources said this could come in the form of a federally funded scholarship tax credit program that would be part of a Trump-promised reform of the U.S. tax code… Scholarship tax credit programs offer lucrative tax credits to individuals and corporations donating to nonprofits that provide money for students to use for tuition at private and religious schools and public schools outside a student’s designated district.  There are now 17 states with programs that offer scholarship tax credits… including Florida, the state that DeVos has frequently mentioned as a model for the kind of reform she is seeking.” (This blog covered the range of voucher, tax credit, and education savings account programs here.)

A tax credit plan would be easier to pass in Congress according to Caitlin Emma at Politico, “A federal tax credit scholarship program could be part of a larger tax reform bill and pass through the budget reconciliation process with only 51 votes in the Senate.”  Diverting Title I funds, by contrast, would require an appropriations bill, that could potentially be filibustered and require 60 votes.

You might wonder how tax credits could damage the public schools, if they merely divert tax dollars to private schools without affecting already-existing federal public school programs. Here is how this would likely work out. While the federal government provides less than 10 percent of school funding, states are a primary funder of public schools, covering about half of school spending. Any federal tax credit program would very likely be designed to incentivize states to launch new tuition tax credit programs or expand existing programs. And establishing or expanding state tax credits would reduce the amount of tax dollars flowing into the states’ public education budgets.  Here is how David Berliner and Gene Glass define tuition tax credits in their book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools: “There are tax credits and then there are tax deductions. They are very different things. Suppose you and your spouse have an income of $100,000…. And suppose that the federal income taxes you owe… amount to about $25,000 a year. If you take a tax deduction for your contribution of $1,000 to the Red Cross, that will reduce your tax indebtedness by about $250. Not so with tax credits… If you and your spouse live in a state with a state income tax (and a tuition tax credit program)… then you can direct $1,000, say, of your state income tax to the My-Pet-Project fund, and your state income tax indebtedness will be reduced by the full $1,000.” (p. 188)

Jeff Bryant quotes Kevin Welner of the National Education Policy Center explaining more about how such schemes  work: “Welner explains, tax credit scholarship programs are a ‘money-laundering mechanism’ that inserts into the transaction a third party—often called a school tuition organization (STO). Instead of taxpayer money being distributed directly to parents as vouchers, credits are issued by the state when tax deductible donations go to an STO. That credit then becomes scholarship money for parents to pay for private school tuition.”

Meanwhile, as Trump and DeVos move forward with some kind of expansion of vouchers or tax credits, in the NY Times, Kevin Carey just published a scathing critique based on three new research reports on the performance of traditional school voucher programs that have been operating for some time in a number of states.  Carey reports on a new study of the Indiana voucher program, created by Governor Mitch Daniels and rapidly expanded by Mike Pence when he was Indiana’s governor. The new research confirms that Indiana students who have moved to voucher schools “experienced significant losses in achievement” in mathematics and no improvement in reading.  Another 2015 study, this time in Louisiana, documents “negative results in both reading and math” when students used a voucher to transfer to a private school. Then this past June, “a third voucher study was released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank and proponent of school choice. The study, which was financed by the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation, focused on a large voucher program in Ohio. ‘Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools,’ the researchers found.  Once again, results were worse in math.”

Carey concludes: “The new evidence on vouchers does not seem to have deterred the Trump administration, which has proposed a new $20 billion voucher program.  Secretary DeVos’s enthusiasm for vouchers, which have been the primary focus of her philanthropic spending and advocacy, appears to be undiminished.”

These new voucher studies would not surprise Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, professors at the University of Illinois, who, in their 2014 book, The Public School Advantage, explain: “We were both skeptical when we first saw the initial results: public schools appeared to be attaining higher levels of mathematics performance than demographically comparable private and charter schools—and math is thought to be a better indicator of what is taught by schools than, say, reading, which is often more influenced directly and indirectly by experiences in the home. These patterns… held up (or were ‘robust’ in the technical jargon) even when we used different models and variables in the analyses… (T)he data show that the more regulated public school sector embraces more innovative and effective professional practices, while independent schools often use their greater autonomy to avoid such reforms, leading to curricular stagnation.” (pp xvii-xviii)

Congress Ought to Do Something Radical, Take ESEA Back to Its Original Purpose: Equity

In a news blast last week, the Education Law Center challenged Congress to “compel states to fund schools fairly” in any legislation it might pass to reauthorize the federal education law that we currently call No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  Supposedly aides in the relevant House and Senate committees are working on a compromise between very different House and Senate versions passed earlier this year of a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  Whether any kind of compromise can be moved forward in the current Congress remains a question.

In pushing Congress to address equity in the reauthorization, the Education Law Center proposes that Congress add an element to the compromise that neither Senate nor House included in the very different bills passed by the two chambers—an element so unthinkable these days that it hasn’t even been part of the conversation.  This is, of course, ironic, as the 1965, Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)  (of which NCLB is merely the latest reauthorization) was originally designed as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.  The purpose of its largest program, Title I, was to infuse federal funds into schools that serve either a large number or a high percentage of students living in poverty.

Writing of this year’s ESEA reauthorization debate, the Education Law Center points out: “Conspicuously absent from the debate is the critical need for federal policy to motivate the States to fairly fund their public schools. Federal funding accounts for only about 10% of preK-12 funding.  The states, through their finance systems, determine the lion’s share of school funding, how it’s distributed, and the mix of state and local revenue.  Only a handful of states provide sufficient levels of funding and distribute that funding fairly to address student need as documented in Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card.  Many states have been unable or unwilling to make their funding systems more equitable and adequate.  It is crucial that federal education policies pressure states to improve funding fairness.”

The Education Law Center references the report of the Equity and Excellence Commission chartered by Congress itself in 2013, a document that charges: “The common situation in America is that schools in poor communities spend less per pupil—and often many thousands of dollars less per pupil—than schools in nearby affluent communities, meaning poor schools can’t compete for the best teaching and principal talent in a local labor market and can’t implement the high-end technology and rigorous academic and enrichment programs needed to enhance student performance. This is arguably the most important equity-related variable in American Schooling today.  Let’s be honest: We are also an outlier in how many of our children are growing up in poverty… We are also an outlier in how we concentrate those children, isolating them in certain schools—often resource-starved schools—which only magnifies poverty’s impact and makes high achievement that much harder.”

The version of the ESEA reauthorization that the House passed earlier this year contains a dangerous provision, Title I portability—a public school Title I voucher a poor child could carry to any public school to which she or he might move. Title I portability would actually increase school funding inequity by rendering Title I less effective to address what is a rapidly growing trend in many cities—the concentration of very poor children in particular neighborhoods and schools. Title I was designed to drive additional federal funds to schools where poverty is concentrated.  If Congress were to enact Title I portability, a poor student whose family moved to a wealthier school would instead carry the funding away from the school in the poorer neighborhood where many poor children remain concentrated. Many also worry that a public Title I portability voucher program could easily be the  top of a slippery slope toward Title I private school vouchers that would further drain funding from poor urban school districts.

The Education Law Center adds that while neither House nor Senate version of the ESEA reauthorization increases overall funding for Title I, both propose damaging changes in the distribution of an already far too small pot of money: “This year, the Senate passed a version of the ESEA that would allocate more Title I funds to southern and western states at the expense of northern and eastern states. The House passed a version that would allocate Title I funds away from large cities in favor of smaller school districts… The ESEA reauthorization bill recently passed by the Senate changes Title I by taking away a built-in reward to states that exhibit high “effort” in school funding. “Effort” measures state spending on education relative to state fiscal capacity. If this change to Title I is accepted by the conference committee, states would lose an important incentive to adequately fund their schools.”

The Education Law Center’s news blast concludes: “Under Title I, about $14.5 billion is provided annually to school districts, an amount that has remained flat for several years… What’s needed is a commitment from the President and leaders in Congress to take up the deep and longstanding inequities that inhibit educational progress in most states.”

In recent speeches Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, is also advocating for equity, though NEA’s request is even more humble: get funding fairness at least into the conversation.  Eskelsen Garcia and the NEA are asking Congress to include more reporting on disparities in the opportunity to learn by mandating a national “opportunity dashboard” that would expose inequity.  Patrick O’Donnell interviewed Eskelsen Garcia for the Cleveland Plain Dealer: “She said the worst failure of No Child Left Behind is that it expected all students to meet test score targets, without paying any attention to how poverty affects how much kids learn.  Expecting scores to rise without solving underlying socioeconomic issues was never realistic, she said. Garcia wants the federal government to report things like student access to Advanced Placement classes, kindergarten, nurses and arts or foreign language classes, along with test results.  The dashboard would also list attendance and graduation rates, data on teacher qualifications, class sizes and the availability of libraries and technology. ‘What we are asking for is a very powerful advocacy tool that will give us data. We will be able to use that information to call out what needs to be called out.'”

Congress certainly needs to increase the Title I allocation, keep the formula fair, and report data on access to opportunity as well as data on test scores. But during the Obama administration the U.S. Department of Education has also demonstrated that the federal government has an additional tool.  Arne Duncan has created huge grant competitions that have conditioned application for federal funds on states’ incorporating federal priorities into their own laws and rules.  As conditions for Race to the Top money, states were required to remove caps on the number of new charter schools that could be opened.  To get a waiver from the most onerous penalties of NCLB, states accepted a federal requirement that they tie teachers’ evaluations to their students’ test scores.  States have been receiving federal money on the condition that they agree to close or charterize so-called “failing” schools.  As part of the ESEA reauthorization, Congress could just as easily create incentives for states to close opportunity gaps by equalizing their state school funding formulas.

In her 2010 book, The Flat World and Education, Stanford University’s Linda Darling-Hammond describes the kind of school funding reform Congress ought to be considering as its members reauthorize the federal education law: “It is exhausting even to recount the struggles for equitable funding in American schools, much less to be engaged in the struggles, year after year, or—more debilitating—to be a parent or student who is subject day-by-day, week-by-week to the aggressive neglect often fostered in dysfunctional, under-resourced schools.  One wonders what we might accomplish as a nation if we could finally set aside what appears to be our de facto commitment to inequality, so profoundly at odds with our rhetoric of equity….” (p.164)

Or go back to Jonathan Kozol’s 1991 classic, Savage Inequalities, as timely today as when it was published a quarter century ago: “‘In a country where there is no distinction of class,’ Lord Acton wrote of the United States 130 years ago, ‘a child is not born to the station of its parents, but with an indefinite claim to all the prizes that can be won by thought and labor. It is in conformity with the theory of equality… to give as near as possible to every youth an equal state in life.’  Americans, he said, ‘are unwilling that any should be deprived in childhood of the means of competition.’  It is hard to read these words today without a sense of irony and sadness.” (p. 83)

Key Issues to Consider as Congress Looks at ESEA This Week

Today the Senate will begin debating a bipartisan bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), whose most recent version No Child Left Behind was passed in 2001.  Its five-year reauthorization is long, long overdue.  The House Rules Committee has also scheduled a meeting today to consider whether to resurrect the House version of the bill, which died after the Education and Labor Committee chose not to bring it to the House floor in March when sponsors realized they could not secure enough votes for passage.

Here is my view about what any new reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act should do:

  • address public school inequality by allocating federal resources for equity and pressing states to close opportunity gaps;
  • allocate Title I funds to support schools serving children in poverty through a fair formula, not a competition or any kind of portable voucher;
  • reduce reliance on standardized tests;
  • support and improve, rather than punishing, the public schools in America’s poorest communities;
  • address issues outside school that affect school achievement such as racial segregation, concentrated poverty and the need for pre-school that helps children before they fall behind;
  • reject market-based, technocratic policies that involve school choice and privatization; and instead
  • improve public education as the bedrock of our society and public schools as the anchors of communities.

How close can our current Congress come to these ideals? And why is ESEA so important?

ESEA’s Philosophy:   Beyond its specifics, this omnibus federal education law sets our society’s overall education policy and establishes the philosophy of education that underpins the law’s specific requirements.  The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was originally passed in 1965 as the centerpiece of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.  As he signed the original ESEA, Johnson declared, “Poverty has many roots, but the taproot is ignorance.”  Title I, a huge formula program that has delivered extra funding to schools and school districts that serve a large number or high concentration of children in poverty, was the centerpiece of the original ESEA.  Later Congress added funding streams to support the education of children with special needs—the Individuals with Disability Education Act, and funding to support the added expense of providing instruction in English for immigrant children.  The philosophy under the original ESEA was expanding opportunity, supporting equity, and compensating schools, especially when their states did not provide an adequate opportunity to learn for children whose needs are greatest.

How did No Child Left Behind change the federal approach to education?   Then in 2001, as the culmination of over a decade’s infatuation with test based accountability, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, a version of ESEA with a very different philosophy.  The idea was to test all children every year, compare the scores of all groups of children by race and economics, rank and rate schools according to how quickly they were raising test scores among every group of children, and impose sanctions on the schools and teachers who were not raising scores for all groups of children.  The law originally said it would rank any school as “failing” if it did not bring all children to a standard of proficiency by 2014, but as 2014 got closer, and everybody realized such a utopian goal was impossible, the U.S. Department of Education began offering the chance for states to apply for waivers (from the “failure” label) if they would impose high standards and rate teachers by students’ test scores.  No Child Left Behind abruptly shifted the focus of ESEA away from equalizing opportunity to a new philosophy of equalizing outcomes.  It shifted the demand away from closing opportunity gaps to closing test score achievement gaps, without acknowledging that achievement gaps derive in large part from opportunity gaps. The original ESEA set out to try to ameliorate the ravages of poverty—however inadequately it was funded for such an ambitious goal.  NCLB instead blamed schools and teachers, and its mechanism was sanctions without significant added funding.

How has the Obama administration changed federal education policy?   Then as the Obama administration added its own programs on top of NCLB, the problems got worse.  NCLB’s sanctions became widespread as more and more schools failed to bring all children to proficiency.  Sanctions such as school closure, turnaround—that involved firing the principal and half the teachers, and conversion of public schools to charters—began to be imposed across our poorest big city school districts.  The Obama Department of Education even took some of the money in the Title I formula and turned it into competitive programs in which states—those that would agree to the Department’s requirements that caps on charters be eliminated and teachers ranked and rated by students’ scores—competed for big federal grants.  There were “winner” states and also the losers, even though they also had public schools that serve poor children who lost the benefit of some of their Title I funding—the very opposite the old Title I formula that assisted all school districts serving children in poverty.

What is Congress considering now?   Neither the Senate bill nor the House bill being considered in Congress right now is ideal, though the Senate bill is far better than the House bill.  Both bills, unless they are amended, retain the requirement that states test all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school and report out the scores.  The Senate bill as it was passed out of committee in April would shift responsibility for improving low-scoring schools away from federally prescripted punishments and give states more latitude for setting policy.  For details about what is in the Senate bill, read Monty Neill’s piece (Monty leads the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.) that was printed in Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post column yesterday.

Title I Portability:   Although the Senate bill maintains the Title I formula, the far more conservative House bill includes a damaging proposal called “Title I portability.” This provision would undermine the original purpose of the federal role in education: to add compensatory funding in schools and school districts where family poverty is highly concentrated but where no state is doing enough to equalize opportunity.  Under the House bill poor children would receive federal Title I funds to support their education, but they could carry that funding to any public school they might attend.  If a poor family moved, for example, from a poor urban school district to an apartment in a wealthy suburban district, the student would bring along a flat, per-child, Title I amount.  The problem with Title I portability is that in districts where poverty is concentrated, the poverty of the mass of children challenges the capacity of schools to provide adequate supports and services.  Title I portability would undermine targeting built into the Title I formula that weights support according to the school’s concentration of poverty.  Here is how Washington Post reporter Lindsey Layton described the effect last February: “For example, Phoenix public schools have a poverty rate of 61.4 percent.  The school system receives $8.5 million in federal Title I funds.  Under the House committee plan, the school district would receive $3.8 million less, a nearly 45 percent drop in federal funds, according to the U.S. Department of Education.”  Many people worry that passage of public school Title I portability would eventually lead to Title I vouchers that children could carry to private schools.

Will the Senate bill, as proposed, be improved during floor debate?   It is assumed that there will be significant amendments from the floor in the Senate.  One is likely to be from Jon Tester (D-Montana) to substitute grade-span testing—once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school—for the annual standardized testing requirement in the bill that came out of Committee.  Although a large group of civil rights organizations has demanded the continuation of annual standardized testing because they consider it the only way to hold schools accountable, three civil rights leaders earlier this month—John Jackson, President of the Schott Foundation, Judith Browne Dianis co-director of Advancement Project, and Pedro Noguera, the New York University educational sociologist—published an important piece in The Hill to demand a reconsideration of the need for annual testing: “Moreover, of all the topics that could be addressed as No Child Left behind (NCLB) is considered for reauthorization, why defend a policy that has proven ineffective in advancing the educational interest of children of color and disadvantaged children generally?  Schools serving poor children and children of color remain under-funded and have been labeled ‘failing’ while little has been done at the local, state or federal level to effectively intervene and provide support.  In the face of clear evidence that children of color are more likely to be subjected to over-testing and a narrowing of curriculum in the name of test preparation, it is perplexing that D.C. based civil rights groups are promoting annual tests.”

One hopes there will be an effort in the Senate to move the philosophy of ESEA closer to its roots with a shift toward closing resource opportunity gaps.  Earlier this spring,  the Washington Post reported that the National Education Association has been pressing the Senate to amend the law to address the inequities between high-poverty public schools and those in more affluent communities by demanding that a new ESEA would require schools to, “publish an ‘opportunity dashboard’ that would disclose how much each school spends on teacher salaries, the number of experienced teachers and counselors they employ, access to Advanced Placement and honors courses and other indicators, so that disparity between schools is transparent.” NEA officials recently reported they are pressing Congress to include at least one measure of resource opportunity (along with the test score data required today) in the disaggregated data by which school districts and schools are evaluated. The goal: to shift the paradigm away from the test-score-based evaluation scheme embedded in No Child Left Behind to a new framework that exposes inequity across each state’s school districts. Problems are acute in states known to have regressive school funding formulas that fail to direct extra state dollars to help overcome disparities in local resources from school district to school district.

Can the House bill be improved?  Will it be voted on?  There remain serious questions about the House version of the reauthorization.  Will it come out of committee onto the floor?  Will Title I portability remain a key part of the House version?  Will the Club for Growth and Heritage Action continue to limit what the House will consider?  These two organizations’ lobbying efforts to make the bill far more conservative are said to have blocked its passage in March.

And then there is the question about whether Senate and House versions could be reconciled in conference committee, even if they were to pass in their respective chambers.

Everyone Should Learn About, Care About, and Strongly Oppose Title I Portability

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.”