This week, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee Tom Harkin (D-IA) released a new draft bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The bill, called the Strengthening America’s Schools Act, makes a lot of changes – you can read more about those here and here. Among those changes are some tweaks to Title I, the $14.5 billion program that provides funding to low-income children and high-poverty schools.
States’ Distribution to School Districts
The Harkin bill would require states to modify how they provide funds to school districts by adding a new provision. The new requirement would mean that the lowest-performing school districts, the neediest districts, and those that prove the “strongest commitment” to evidence-based reforms that improve student performance get first priority. Any additional funds would be diverted to districts that don’t meet these criteria.But districts would receive at least as much funding as they did last year; the change would only apply to a percentage of funds over the existing appropriation.
The lowest-performing districts are defined elsewhere in the bill as “priority” and “focus” schools. Focus schools are the 10 percent of schools with the biggest achievement gap, and the 10 percent of high schools with the biggest graduation rate gap, among student subgroups as compared to the statewide average. Priority schools are the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, high schools with graduation rates below 60 percent, and any school that has been a focus school for 6 consecutive years. The idea of priority and focus schools is co-opted from the No Child Left Behind waivers the Department of Education has already issued to 35+ states.
A separate ESEA reauthorization bill authored by Sen. Alexander (R-TN) goes much further – and in the opposite direction. Under that bill, states could elect to allocate funding by the number of Title I-eligible children per district. Effectively, then, the funds would follow a child to any public school within a district. (A Romney campaign proposal would have allowed funds to follow children into private schools or other school districts. This is less extreme – and less of a logistical nightmare – than that proposal would have been.)
School Districts’ Distribution to Schools
The Harkin bill also revises how funds awarded to school districts are distributed to schools. Currently, school districts that receive Title I funds are required to rank all “school attendance areas” in the district. The district must serve all areas with more than 75 percent of its children living in poverty, in rank order, and then may serve schools below 75 percent poverty with any remaining funds.
The rankings are calculated by one of a few measures: Census poverty data, the number of students in the free and reduced priced lunch program, the number of children in families that receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits, or the number of children eligible for Medicaid assistance are all allowable metrics. Under the new plan, high schools could instead use a “feeder” pattern to calculate poverty rankings. That would calculate the number of low-income students by measuring the average percentage of low-income families in the elementary schools that will later attend the high school.
And under the Harkin bill, that split would be different for high schools than for elementary and middle schools. Districts would still have to serve elementary and middle schools with more than 75 percent of children living in poverty, but now any high school with over 50 percent poverty would also be served. Elementary and middle schools that received funding last year, but are now out-ranked by high schools at more than 50 percent poverty, could be protected by the district, though.
One last note on school attendance areas: Districts would be allowed to provide funds for early childhood education in eligible areas, even before they provide funds to high schools in eligible areas.
Title I Teacher Comparability
The Harkin bill does try to correct one loophole in Title I: comparability. Under current law, school districts are required to distribute funds to their Title I and non-Title I schools equally. The amount of funding provided to Title I schools cannot be more than 10 percent below that of non-Title I schools.
But that metric can mask a major inequity: teachers in non-Title I schools tend to be more experienced and better paid, so high-income schools typically receive more state and local funding for teacher pay than low-income schools do. School districts that compare student-teacher ratios between Title I and non-Title I schools to prove compliance with teacher comparability are obscuring the variation in teacher pay.
Harkin included a provision in the 2011 reauthorization draft he produced closing the loophole, and it’s back in the current draft. As of the 2015-2016 school year, districts will have to demonstrate comparability using per-pupil expenditures from both state and local funding, including actual expenditures on teacher salaries and benefits. They’ll be measuring actual funding in individual schools, not less valid measures like teacher-student ratios or district salary schedules. And Title I schools would receive equal funding to non-Title I schools, rather than a measure that’s within 10 percent.
Title I Funding Formulas
Title I is one of the largest federal education programs. It serves about 23 million low-income PreK-12 students nationwide across most school districts, because any district with at least a couple of low-income students is eligible. Funds are distributed through four complicated funding formulas, which have several flaws that do little to rebalance inequities. The Harkin bill doesn’t touch the formulas themselves, in spite of arguments that the formulas don’t target high-poverty schools very well. But it does make some adjustments around the edges that could help prevent some inequities.
We’ll have a lot more on the Harkin bill, and other ESEA reauthorization progress, in the coming weeks. Check back with Ed Money Watch for more details.