CAP brief: A federal loophole that shortchanges poor schools

Article Via: Washington Post, Lyndsey Layton, March 11, 2015.

As Congress debates how to best distribute federal funds to help states educate poor children, a new brief from the Center for American Progress argues that the current program, known as Title 1, has structural flaws that undermine its purpose.

A lot of money is at stake — currently, the federal government sends about $14.6 billion annually to high-poverty K-12 schools nationwide.

Title 1, a central feature of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, was designed to level the playing field so that poor children receive the same opportunities as affluent children. Federal lawmakers who created the program didn’t want states to use federal dollars in place of state and local dollars in high-poverty schools; they wanted the federal funds to be used in addition, to provide the kinds of extra programs and services that would help poor children catch up to their wealthier peers.

So they required “comparability” — states and local districts must evenly spread their dollars across schools within a community in order to be eligible for federal Title 1 dollars for their high-poverty schools.

The problem, according to analysts at the Center for American Progress and elsewhere, is that most school districts don’t perform actual school-by-school budget comparisons, instead using average costs that can mask significant variations between schools within a district. What’s more, federal law prohibits districts from using actual expenditures to calculate comparability.

The problem is apparent, the analysts say, when you consider that Title 1 schools tend to be staffed with less-experienced teachers than more affluent schools. More-experienced teachers generally earn higher salaries than newcomers to the field, so districts frequently spend more on teacher salaries in affluent schools than in high-poverty schools.

The Center for American Progress is a left-leaning think tank that is closely associated with the Obama administration. Robert Hanna, Max Marchitello and Catherine Brown at CAP examined data from 95,000 public schools collected by the Education Department during the 2011-2012 school year. They compared how districts fund schools that are eligible for Title I dollars with other schools in their grade span — elementary, middle or high school grades. The trio found “vast disparities throughout the country in how districts spend state and local dollars on Title I schools.”
Among their findings:
  • More than 4.5 million low-income students attend inequitably funded Title I schools. In most states, there are tens of thousands of students from low-income households who attend Title I schools that are not funded equitably relative to other schools in their district.
  • These inequitably funded schools receive about $1,200 less per student than comparison schools in their districts, on average, but actual amounts vary. In Fort Worth, for example, inequitably funded Title I schools receive about $2,600 less per student. In some districts, the disparities are even wider. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, inequitably funded Title I schools receive about $4,900 less than other schools. If these gaps were closed, inequitably funded schools in Texas would receive an additional $1.6 billion annually, and in New Mexico, they would have an additional $65 million.
  • If the federal loophole were closed, high-poverty schools would receive about $8.5 billion in new funds each year, nationwide.
As Congress works on an overdue remake of No Child Left Behind, the most current iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, lawmakers ought to close the comparability loophole, the CAP analysts say. States and districts ought to be required to fund their Title 1 schools at the same level as their more affluent schools, based on actual spending, according to CAP.

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