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)

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Congress Deletes ‘Race to the Top’ Competition

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.

Obama & Duncan Merely Pretend to Address School Inequity

President Barack Obama’s proposed 2015 federal budget includes a new $300 million Race to the Top Opportunity initiative described as promoting equity in public schools.  While funding is frozen for the Department of Education’s large and important programs like Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the budget, if passed by Congress, would create a new competitive grant program by which states could apply for federal funds, “to help states and districts create data systems that track characteristics such as teacher and principal experience and effectiveness, academic achievement, and student coursework.  It would also give schools resources to attract and retain effective teachers, extend learning time, bolster school culture, and help students non-cognitive skills,” according to Education Week‘s Alyson Klein.

Late last week, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a brand new study to bolster the need for the new Race to the Top Opportunity proposal.  According to Michele McNeill (Education Week‘s other expert on federal policy in education), the new “federal civil rights data show persistent and widespread disparities among disadvantaged students from prekindergarten through high school on key indicators…. Minorities and students with limited English proficiency are more likely to be taught by inexperienced teachers, attend a high school with limited math and science offerings, and be disciplined at higher rates than their white peers….”  In the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss reported striking facts documented in last week’s report:  approximately 40 percent of school districts fail to offer preschool and usually for only a few hours each day; Black, Latino, and Native American students lack access to a full range of courses, particularly math and science; one fifth of high schools do not provide a school counselor; and serious disparities exist in punitive discipline policies and grade retention by race.

It is definitely a good thing that President Obama and Arne Duncan are bringing attention to the need for equity in public schools, because opportunity gaps due to poverty, segregation, and tragically inadequate and unequally distributed school funding are the heart of what is wrong with public schooling in America.  Tragically, however, most of the substantive programs coming from Duncan’s Department of Education fail to address these very real problems and instead push punitive sanctions for the schools that struggle—school closure, transformation to a charter school, punishments for teachers who can’t quickly raise scores.  It is important that Obama and Duncan are finally discussing the deep and seemingly intractable challenge of inequality, but the programs they have been promoting for over five years now have little to do with remedying inequality.

Another problem is that the new research merely replicates an enormous body of existing research that already documents these problems. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities continues to point out that the states (where the responsibility for school funding primarily rests) are spending less on public education than in 2007, before the Great Recession.  Due to the lingering effects of the recession in some states and the popularity of low taxes and austerity budgeting, 34 of the 50 states are spending less today.  The Education Law Center has just released the third edition of Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card, which examines the condition of the 50 state school funding systems and rates the states on the basis of funding level, funding distribution, state fiscal effort, and public school ‘coverage.’

Then  just a year ago a Congressionally convened Equity and Excellence Commission released a report that not only documented massive inequality of opportunity across our nation’s public schools but also suggested exactly what the President and Congress could do to address it: “There is no constitutional barrier to a greater federal role in financing K-12 education.  It is, rather, a question of our nation’s civic and political will; the modest federal contribution that today amounts to approximately 10 percent of national k-12 spending is a matter of custom, not a mandate.  The federal government must take bold action in specific areas.”  Here are the first four of the Commission’s twelve suggestions:

  • “Direct states, with appropriate incentives, to adopt and implement school finance systems that will… provide a meaningful educational opportunity for all students….”
  • “Enact ‘equity and excellence’ legislation that: targets significant new federal funding to schools with high concentrations of low-income students, particularly where achievement gaps exist….”
  • “provide incentives for states to explore and pursue ways to reduce the number of schools with concentrated poverty, because schools without concentrated poverty cost less to run than schools with concentrated poverty.”
  • “Reassess its enforcement regime with respect to issues of school finance equity….”

Notice that the Commission is speaking of the need for an enormous federal investment—far more than $300 million— and that the Commission is suggesting that the Office of Civil Rights do far more than a research study on inequality.  According to the Commission, the Office of Civil Rights must enforce equity, perhaps by conditioning federal assistance on states’ efforts to ameliorate injustice.

Beyond expanding the federal goverment’s capacity to enforce states’ move toward equity, there, ironically, already exists the ideal federal program by which the federal government could invest significantly to help school districts serving very poor children.  This is the Title I formula program, frozen in the President’s proposed 2015 federal budget.  Title I is the federal civil rights program created in 1965 as the centerpiece of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act to equalize opportunity by sending federal money to schools serving a large number or high concentration of very poor children. Title I is a formula program that distributes federal money to all schools whose children qualify.  It is a program that has never been fully funded.  The President and Congress could fully fund Title I and could even adjust the formula to do a better job of targeting money to schools that face enormous challenges in communities where poverty is highly concentrated.

Pursuing equity through Race to the Top instead of the Title I formula is a virtual impossibility.  Race to the Top, like Arne Duncan’s other competitive grant programs, is a competition.  Races with winners always create losers.  There are millions of poor children spread across the fifty states.  When five or ten states win a Race to the Top competition in any one year, the poor children  and their schools in all the rest of the states are the losers.  And it is essential to remember that the money for Race to the Top comes right out of the Title I program, thereby reducing the formula program that was designed with equity as its very foundation.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson describes the moral implications of the substitution of competitive programs like Race to the Top for the Title I civil rights formula program:  “There are those who would make the case for a Race to the Top for those who can run.  Instead ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

Budget Agreement Protects Title I, IDEA, Head Start, and Impact Aid for Indian Reservation Schools

Budget agreements may seem far away and deep in the policy weeds, but they cut through the rhetoric and posturing to point the direction where things are actually going to go.  Last night, January 13, House and Senate agreed on a federal spending compromise for the rest of the fiscal year—through September.  Assuming that Congress passes what the negotiators decided, the education spending provisions are a relief for supporters of public schools.

According to Alyson Klein, who covers federal policy for Education Week, the Title I formula program that allocates federal funds to support school districts that serve a large number or high concentration of poor students and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) will receive increases, almost reaching the level before Sequestration reduced their funding.  Title I will get $14.4 billion, slightly under the $14.5 billion it received in FY 2012.  Special education grants will be $11.5 billion, just slightly less than the pre-Sequestration, FY 2012 amount of $11.6 billion.  Keep in mind that both of these programs have been perennially under-funded.  When Congress passed IDEA, for example, the federal government promised to pay scho0l districts 40 percent of the costs of implementation; Congress has never covered more than 19 percent of the cost— and usually less than 19 percent.  However, this year it is a relief to see Congress pretty much undoing the damage of Sequestration to these programs that cover essential programming in schools across the country at a time when state budgets continue to be austere.

While Congress will fund—at $250 million—another round of Race to the Top early-learning competitive grants for states, Congress does not intend to allocate $750 million that the President had requested for development grants to states to expand preschool programs for 4-year-olds. The choice not to fund the President’s pre-school initiative will be a disappointment for all who know the importance of early education.

However, Congress has agreed to boost Head Start by $1 billion, bringing that program’s allocation back up to $8.6 billion, with $500 million of that going to strengthen early Head Start.  Head Start had been devastated by Sequestration, which eliminated 57,000 children from participation last year.  Additionally Congress will allocate $$2.4 billion for Child Care and Development Block Grants,  adding $154 million over last year’s investment in this program that helps states support child care assistance for families in need.

Public schools on already poor and isolated Indian Reservations have been devastated by Sequestration’s cuts to Federal Impact Aid.  The new budget agreement adds $64 million over last year’s appropriation to bring Impact Aid spending to $1.3 billion.

Congressional budget negotiators did not include funding for the President’s request for $1 billion in “Higher Education Race to the Top” competitive grants to motivate states to create accountability at the college level for raising graduation rates while holding down tuition.

The spending agreement also significantly revises the competitive School Improvement Grants (SIG).  Congress has removed the requirement that schools choose from among very controversial, prescribed “turnaround” plans: firing the principal and half the staff, closing the school, turning the school over to a charter management or educational management organization, and implementing other specified reforms such as merit pay or lengthening the school day or year.  The language in the spending agreement would, according to Alyson Klein in Education Week, “offer schools and states two new choices including the chance to try out any school improvement strategy that’s been proposed by the state and gotten a green light from the U.S. Secretary of Education,” or a fifth model, “‘whole school reform,’ which would allow schools to partner with an outside organization that has a proven track record in turnarounds.”  Klein describes Congressional revision of SIG as “a blow to the Obama administration, which had stood stubbornly behind its four models, even as student outcome data from the SIG program showed it had a mixed track record.”

Budget negotiations are one place where we all need to be very grateful for the inside-the-Beltway groups that represent the interests of teachers, principals, superintendents, school boards, and the children they serve.  Here is how NEA describes the priorities NEA and its partners pushed for: “To help mitigate the damage, this week NEA joined the American Federation of Teachers, American Association of School Administrators, Council of the Great City Schools, and National Schools Boards Association in urging the appropriators crafting the Labor-HHS-Education and other funding bills…  to make undoing the cuts in core formula grant programs that benefit students most in need, like Title I and IDEA, a top priority.”