Last week, the Title I-derland blog wrote that Congress is gearing up for a Title I formula fight as part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA – currently known as No Child Left Behind) reauthorization process. Given the complicated legacy of the current Title I funding formulas, this is likely to further delay the introduction of a complete ESEA reauthorization bill.
A formula fight is exactly what it sounds like – congressional staff members gather around a table and work out a funding formula (or in this case formulas) that distributes Title I funds among states and school districts in accordance with the program’s stated goal – to provide support for the education of disadvantaged students. Of course, staff members will also aim to ensure that the formula(s) benefits each of their states as much as possible – no member of Congress will vote for a program that shortchanges his or her state or district.
It should be no surprise that the resulting formulas often obscure the relationship between funding and poverty. Currently, Title I funding is distributed through four complicated funding formulas that each assess poverty slightly differently. The Basic grant formula distributes funds based on the number of poor students. The Concentration grant formula provides funds to districts with 15 percent or more students living in poverty. The Targeted grant formula gives more funding per pupil to districts with higher concentrations of poor students. Finally, the Education Finance Incentive Grant formula distributes rewards districts in states with more equitable funding formulas.
Not only do these formulas take into account the number or concentration of poor students in a given district or state, but they also take into account state size, per pupil expenditure, and even the degree to which a state equitably funds low- and high-income schools. While these considerations were intended to guarantee states a certain level of funding, account for the cost of providing an education in a given state, or reward states with more equitable funding formulas, they often undermine the intent of the law.
Ed Money Watch has previously written on this issue, showing that annual Title I allocations per poor pupil do not always benefit school districts with the highest percentages of poor students. In fact, districts in different states with similar poverty rates often receive dramatically different Title I allocations per poor pupil. Read more about this issue here, here, and here.
While it may be tempting to scrap the existing formulas and start over, the legislative process is unlikely to be so simple. Luckily, several organizations have already proposed solutions to the formula problem. The Rural Schools and Community Trust would like to ensure that rural and small school districts get their fair share of funds by eliminating provisions that give more funding to larger districts (called number weighting) and changing the way the formulas take state per pupil spending into account.
The Center for America Progress proposes to replace the existing four formulas with a single formula that would distribute funds based on a weighted count of the number of students in poverty, a cost factor based on the Comparable Wage Index, and a measure of fiscal effort for each state.
In reality, it is more likely that Congress will tinker at the margins of the existing formulas to help ensure a greater degree of equity across states and school districts. Two of the funding formulas – Basic and Concentration – have been part of ESEA for decades and are likely to remain. The Targeted and Education Finance Incentive Grant (EFIG) Formulas, on the other hand, were first written into law in 1994 and are more likely to be the subject of revision. For example, Representative Glenn Thompson (D-PA) recently introduced a bill, called the All Children Are Equal Act, which would alter the Targeted and EFIG formulas to benefit smaller school districts.
Though it’s clear that ESEA reauthorization is still far off, especially given the recent hoopla over Secretary Arne Duncan’s NCLB accountability waiver plan, a formula fight will surely make an already complicated process even more so. However, because the current Title I formulas are flawed to the point of undermining the program, it will be a battle worth fighting for Congress. Better formulas will go a long way in ensuring that Title I funds are supporting the states, districts, and students that need them the most.