Where Will Funds That Now Support Better Education for Poor Children Go?

As I said in my last post, the bipartisan Senate bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act seeks to ease the test score pressures created by No Child Left Behind, the latest version of the ESEA. It also tells the U.S. Department of Education, in no uncertain terms, to stop exerting pressures of its own.

But the bill leaves intact core requirements intended to ensure that schools no longer causally and without consequences leave low-income and other educationally “disadvantaged” students behind.

Title I, which sets these requirements, has another very important part — funding for grants to states and the local education agencies that administer regular public and public charter schools. About a third of the funds go to LEAs according formulas that target funds to schools with the most or highest percents of children in poverty.

The intent here, obviously, is to give these schools the additional resources they need to provide genuinely equal educational opportunities to children who would otherwise have a harder time mastering the knowledge and skills expected for their grade level.

The Senate bill preserves the targeting. This might seem such a sensible thing as to merit no comment — let alone a blog post. But it represents a significant achievement on the part of Senator Patty Murray, who brokered the bipartisan deal on behalf of the Democrats.

The original draft floated by HELP (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander would instead have allowed the money to follow the child — in other words, to let states shift a child’s share of the basic Title I grant to any public school s/he enrolls in.

This was a far less radical change than right-wingers like the Heritage Foundation and fellow travelers pushed for — and far less than leading Republican conservatives have sought for decades now.

I (showing her age) recall several efforts to achieve so-called Title I portability during the Reagan administration. They cropped up again in abortive attempts to reauthorize the ESEA in 1999 and 2007, when now-House Speaker John Boehner expressed the view that “the money belongs to the children” and thus should support “true parental choice.”

“Parental choice” — a favorite code phrase — means that the per-pupil Title I funds should follow the child to any school. That’s, of course, a gift not only to charter schools, but to private schools, including those operated by religious institutions.

Simply “a voucher by another name,” says the National Coalition for Public Education. Others have viewed even the modified public school version as a “back door” to vouchers.

Now, there’s surely something attractive in the notion that low and moderate-income parents should have the same chance to send their kids to private schools as wealthy parents. But Title I portability would hardly afford them this choice. A child’s share of the grant funds is too small.

More importantly, it denies Title I funds to high-poverty schools that need the money for the various programs and services that can help level the playing field for children who, for various reasons, often start kindergarten already behind.

Those located in high-poverty districts, as many are, already have less to spend because public schools get, on average, roughly a third of their funds from local property taxes — some least half.

The Center for American Progress contends that some states use funding formulas that make the inequities worse. So even with targeted Title I grants, the highest-poverty districts had $1,500 less per child to spend in 2012 than those with the fewest poor students — this from another CAP report, aimed directly at portability.

Now, no one’s altogether happy with the Senate bill — no one, at least, that I’ve found in my news feeds and Googling around. And no one, of course, can predict what will happen when the bill hits the floor — presumably open to any and every sort of amendment.

What will happen in the House is also a question mark. The responsible committee there has already passed a bill — not even remotely on a bipartisan basis. It includes, among other things, the public school portability provision that Alexander has, at least temporarily, given up on.

And Boehner has apparently given up — at least for the time being — on trying to get the House bill passed. Democrats unhappy with the portability provision, a funding cap that would lock in sequestration and what they perceive, with some justice, as an excess of state flexibility.

Tea Party types unhappy with the remaining degree of federal “control” — and the fact that the bill doesn’t let Title I funds follow children to private schools.

So we might not see the ESEA reauthorized this year — or next, for that matter. We certainly won’t see anything like the House bill become law because the White House issued a veto threat just before the House passed a similar bill in 2013.

Guess we’ll just have to wait and see. But if we see anything, I hope it preserves the targeting because high-poverty schools need more resources to give disadvantaged children the opportunities they deserve.

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