Several months ago, the Romney campaign released a document titled “A Chance for Every Child” that outlined the candidate’s education platform. Buried in the document is a proposal to “voucherize” the two largest federal programs for K-12 education: Title I and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) state grants. The proposal would allow eligible students to take that funding with them to the public or private school or district of their choice. While such student-based funding is gaining popularity, can a student really just show up at a school with federal vouchers in hand and demand to be educated? No. It’s not that simple.
For one, federal funds do not come close to covering the cost of that child’s education. To solve that roadblock, Romney’s plan is predicated on another, related concept – open enrollment. Open enrollment ideally gives students an opportunity to seek out the highest-quality educational opportunities, a worthy goal especially when targeted at low-income and high need students. The platform states that under a Romney administration, the U.S. Department of Education would ensure that every state has an open enrollment system.
Though the Romney proposal is short on details, existing open enrollment states can give us some sense of how it could work. While most states have open enrollment laws, which allow students to apply to attend school in another district, many of them are voluntary, allowing districts to opt not to participate. Others are open only to students at certain schools or at certain income levels. Assumedly, Romney’s plan would require states and districts to adopt open enrollment for all students, requiring districts to accept transfers.*
Such programs typically work like this: If both the resident (the student’s home district) and non-resident (the district the student wants to transfer to) approve a student’s transfer application, the state transfers a payment from the resident district to the non-resident district (usually a portion of the annual per pupil funding). The resident district usually gets to keep some portion of the per pupil funding for “fixed costs.” It is important to note that the per pupil amount typically includes both state and local funds.
But federal funds, particularly Title I funds, can’t easily be made portable because of how they are distributed. Currently, states distribute Title I funds they receive from the federal government to districts based on four formulas that account for Census estimates of both the proportion and number of students living in poverty. However, districts distribute those Title I funds to schools based on enrollment in the free and reduced price lunch program. Theoretically, these funds can be tied to specific students based on their family income levels. But, districts can opt to use Title I dollars for students only in certain grade levels. And schools with poverty rates over a certain level are able to use their Title I funds for “whole school” use, rather than targeting that spending to specific eligible students.
That means most of the federal dollars do not follow specific students but instead are pooled in areas where district or school leaders think they will have the greatest impact. This existing system is often inequitable and leaves many students – particularly high schoolers – at a disadvantage. But it also allows district and school leaders more flexibility in how they use the funds.
Under Romney’s plan states will likely have to distribute Title I funds directly to students based on their enrollment in free and reduced price lunch or some other indicator of poverty (like Medicaid or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). This will take the district and school out of the equation, eliminating a district’s ability to target the funds to certain grade levels or create “whole school” Title I programs. The dollars could then truly follow the student.
This would involve significant structural changes to Title I, including likely rehashing the current funding formulas and redefining how schools can use the funds to serve specific students. That will be a serious challenge – no one likes to lose funding and under Romney’s proposal it would be inevitable.
And any sort of voucherized Title I or IDEA system would necessitate mandatory open enrollment to cover the remaining cost of educating transfer students. This would require significant legislative action at the state level and heavy bureaucratic lifts in federal, state, and local government.
Romney gets extra points for thinking out of the box with this education proposal. It speaks to every parent’s desire to have more control over his or her child’s education and would certainly cause a stir among the education bureaucracy. But at the same time, it undermines local control of schools, a concept many conservatives hold dear. Not only would states be required to implement open enrollment systems and transfer funds among districts, but districts and schools could no longer target their Title I funds to the schools or grades of their choosing.
If candidate Romney becomes President Romney, we predict a long and tough road ahead for his education proposals, likely with resistance from both sides of the aisle.
*Such systems often allow districts to reject a transfer in cases of extreme financial hardship – where a resident district would lose too much funding or a non-resident district would be unable to support the additional cost of educating a transferring student.