THIS POST HAS BEEN UPDATED.
The Federal Education Budget Project (FEBP), Ed Money Watch's parent initiative, provides a wealth of state and school district level data on federal funding, demographics, and achievement through its website www.edbudgetproject.org. These data can tell important stories about how federal education funding interacts with student demographics and achievement. Moreover, the data often reveal rarely-discussed idiosyncrasies in federal funding and education. From time to time, Ed Money Watch will take a close look at one aspect of the data available through FEBP to highlight the value of this information.
This week, we'll take a look at federal Title I grants to local school districts and student poverty data available through the FEBP database. Title I Part A is the largest federal K-12 education program, providing more than $14 billion annually to local education agencies (LEAs) for supplemental education services for students from low income families. Title I funding data reveal formula flaws that significantly skew the relationship between poverty and funds received. In fact, the Title I formulas are considered a relatively opaque and inaccessible process that few education stakeholders understand.
Title I funds are distributed via four funding formulas: Basic Grants, Concentration Grants, Targeted Grants, and Education Finance Incentive Grants. All four formulas take into account the number or percent of students living in poverty in each district and other factors such as the cost of providing an education (as measured by per pupil expenditures) and the size of the state receiving funds. In many cases, the inclusion of these additional factors blurs the direct relationship between student poverty and funds received in districts across the country resulting in seemingly random fund allocations.
We used the custom data comparisons tool on the FEBP website to produce a table that demonstrates how these additional factors cause Title I distributions to vary widely by district. Specifically, we performed a comparison of districts in New York with student poverty rates and student populations within 10 percent of that in Vestal Central School District. Vestal Central School District is an average size district in the state of New York. Additionally, we asked the comparison tool to produce data on 2009 Title I funding (including economic stimulus funds), enrollment, and student poverty. The output of this comparison is below.
Although the student poverty rates and populations in these six New York districts are very similar, their Title I allocations vary dramatically. For example, Long Beach City School District received $1.03 million for Title I in 2009. In the same year, Spencerport Central School District received only $419,300 for Title I even though it has the same student poverty rate as Long Beach City and slightly more students. This results in a significantly different Title I allocation per poor pupil in each district - $3,116 per poor pupil in Long Beach City versus $1,250 in Spencerport Central.
It is not immediately obvious what is causing this funding disparity. When we use FEBP data to more closely examine each district we discover that although both Spencerport Central and Long Beach City are average size suburban districts, Long Beach City's per pupil expenditure (which includes all federal, state, and local spending) is significantly higher than Spencerport Central's - $23,656 in 2007 versus $14,163. However, state per pupil expenditure, not district per pupil expenditure is used as a proxy for the cost of providing an education in the Title I formulas. There must be other factors at play that significantly skew the Title I allocations for these two districts that cannot be illuminated with the data such as hold harmless provisions that guarantee districts continuous funding levels.
However, state average per pupil expenditures explain at least some of the variation in Title I allocations in districts across states. This can be seen when we expand the comparison to include districts in other states. For example, we asked the comparison tool to include districts in California in our previous search. The output is below.
The Title I allocations for the California districts are predominantly lower than those in New York, ranging between $214,000 and $449,000, even though the size and student poverty rates are very similar. This can be again attributed in some part to the perceived cost of educating students in each state. While New York's average per pupil expenditure was over $15,000 in 2007, California's was just under $9,000. By this measure, it appears that educating students in New York is more expensive than in California and so the formulas allocate funding accordingly.
The FEBP comparison tool allows us to drill down into the Title I funding to see how the formulas blur the relationship between federal funding and student poverty, even though the central purpose of Title I is to increase funding for school districts with large low income populations. At first glance, it almost appears as though the funds are distributed randomly, an issue that can only be partially explained away with a closer examination of the data.
The discussion surrounding Title I funding formulas will surely heat up as Congress and the Obama Administration begins to consider the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act -- currently the No Child Left Behind Act. Ideally, the next version of the law will include more logical and accessible methods of distributing these funds.