When the Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Lamar Alexander (R-TN), recently released a draft bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (otherwise known as the No Child Left Behind Act), reaction was swift. At issue is the $14 billion in Title I funds—designed to drive extra money to educate poor, disadvantaged children.
Senator Alexander’s proposal would let dollars follow a student to whatever school he attends and would grant districts greater flexibility in how they use their Title I dollars. Some groups worry about how to guarantee those dollars are well spent. Others are concerned that divvying up funds equally among poor students means that the poorest school systems may not get as much money as they do under the current funding scheme.
These concerns are not insignificant, but they ignore the elephant in the room. And if we tame this elephant, we have the chance to finally turn the tide for poor students.
The reason the federal government got involved in K–12 education in the first place was that districts couldn’t resist local pressures to give more of their funds to wealthier students. Districts created all sorts of policies and practices that favored the wealthier schools. In nearly every mid-sized and large district, the poorest schools simply got the shortest end of the stick. And this still happens today, despite a big federal investment. Today, as before, the big inequities come not from how federal dollars are distributed across districts and schools, but in how school districts dole out the really big dollars—their state and local funds—to schools. Title I (Part A), with less than 3 percent of the total pie, doesn’t reverse these inequities.
While ESEA intended school districts to spend as much on poor schools as on richer ones before applying the federal Title I dollars, the truth is, that doesn’t happen. Local funding practices perpetuate vast inequities that contribute to the glaring achievement gap between white students and brown and black students, between rich and poor. Title I may boost spending on poor kids, but those funds layer on top of a profoundly broken base that can’t be remedied by layering on extra funds.
Thus, we propose a new approach that would change the game for poor students, rather than simply tinker around the margins.
Accept Senator Alexander’s bid for district flexibility and dollars following the student. But in exchange, require school districts to level the financial playing field before doling out Title I dollars. Provide true financial comparability between poor and rich schools, measured with real-dollar accounting of all school-level spending. Then make that accounting fully transparent and public so everyone in the community can see what their school is actually spending—and what the school on the other side of town is spending, too.
What will this do? It will force districts to confront policies that shovel more resources to schools with children from higher-income families. More experienced, better-educated teachers flock to the wealthier schools in their districts and take a disproportionate share of the district’s state and local monies with them. We need look no further than our own backyard, here in Seattle, to see how this plays out. In the south end, where poverty is greatest, the average teacher at Rainier Beach High School earns $60,673. Traveling north, salaries rise steadily until one reaches the district’s northern most school, Ingraham High School, where average teacher pay is $78,898. It happens in other ways, too. Houston ISD, for example, attaches extra monies to magnet schools where there are fewer poor students. Some districts designate extra monies to “exam schools” or special programs where participation includes fewer poor students. These allocations amount to a subsidy from poor to better-off neighborhoods, offsetting and swamping the effects of federal spending. Without true comparability of state and local spending, antiquated salary structures go unchallenged, new ideas like tying pay increments to challenging teaching assignments rarely surface, inequitable allocations persist, and poorer schools get the leftovers.
We’re fighting over the wrong things right now. Some want to restrict what districts can and can’t buy with Title I money. Others are focusing on the slice-and-dice in the Title I formula.
We suggest pairing the student-based formula and flexibility provisions with a real-dollar comparability provision that requires full transparency in spending. The big change will come when Title I truly pries open the black box of district budgeting and forces equity in state and local funds. Poor schools can see what resources they’re entitled to and use their fair share of these funds in ways that will better serve their kids, rather than standing last in line for what the district has to offer. This change will benefit schools in high-poverty areas more than any marginal change in federal funding.
Let’s invest our scarce federal dollars in a way that can leverage real change in what happens inside districts. Our poorest kids simply must learn more in the next decade than they did in this one. No one disagrees that the trajectory needs changing. Now is our chance to act to make sure that it does.