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

May 4, 2015

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.


Bipartisan Senate Bill Tweaks No Child, But Leaves Most of Core Intact

April 30, 2015

As you may have read, we have another genuinely bipartisan bill in Congress. It’s the Senate HELP (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) Committee’s legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now named No Child Left Behind.

It’s a big bill and undoubtedly raises many issues. The most controversial — and for the purposes of this blog, most important — concern Title I, originally Education for the Disadvantaged. The bill modifies requirements that have triggered attacks on No Child from various quarters.

But, in my view, it’s as notable for what it doesn’t do as what it does. I’ll deal here with the inflammatory testing issue. Expect a followup on how Title I would — or wouldn’t any more — targeted funding to schools with unusually high concentrations of students in poverty.

Standardized Tests and Consequences

Title I, in its No Child form, supposedly ushered in the testing regime that school districts have imposed — to the vocal distress of many classroom teachers, the unions that represent them and a growing number of parents.

No Child itself doesn’t require all that many tests — reading/language arts and math annually from third through eighth grade and once in high school, plus three science tests during these years.

What got the testing regime — and thus the anti-test fervor — going were the actions the law requires districts to take when a school’s scores fail to indicate “adequate yearly progress” toward full proficiency for virtually all students by 2014.

A four-year shortfall could mean replacing school staff and/or taking control away from school-level administrators. Another year and the school would have to be restructured, e.g., by firing most or all of the staff, turning the school into a charter school.

One can see why schools started testing much more frequently — and gearing curricula to boosting scores on the mandated tests. Why districts started using the scores to evaluate teachers is a bit more complex.

No Child itself doesn’t require this. But the U.S. Department of Education has used its considerable leverage to make test scores an important part of the evaluations that determine which teachers will be rewarded — and which ultimately fired.

It did this first by limiting its newly-created Race to the Top grants to states that agreed to use such evaluations and then by making them a condition of the waivers that a large majority of states and the District of Columbia have had to seek because schools weren’t hitting their AYP targets.

Testing in the Senate Bill

The Senate bill does several things that may result in less frequent testing, “teaching to the test” and the like. It grants states more flexibility. Natch. They can design their own accountability systems, using standardized test scores as they choose. Use them they must, however.

They and the decision-makers in the districts can decide what to do about schools that don’t measure up, rather than having to choose from a menu of increasingly drastic actions.

The federal government will have some grant money to help them, but it’s expressly prohibited from dictating specific steps — just as it’s expressly prohibited from using its leverage to promote cross-state standards like the now-maligned Common Core.

Still Tests, Broken-Out Scores and Public Reporting

Though states would gain some flexibility, the bill preserves the core purpose of Title I — equal education opportunities for low-income students and those, regardless of income, who belong to racial and ethnic minorities, have disabilities and/or are learning English as a second language.

It does that in part by preserving two of No Child’s major advances. One requires school districts to include at least 95% of each of these groups in their mandated testing. The other requires them to publicly report scores separate for each.

The “disadvantaged” students used to be left behind — and their neglect hard to prove, even when known — in part because school districts could report a single score per school.  They could — and in some cases, did — excuse some of the “disadvantaged” from having to take the tests or otherwise exclude them so as to keep them from dragging down the scores.

The bill won’t allow schools to revert to obfuscations of this sort. So anyone interested will still be able to know whether each of the specified disadvantaged groups has learned whatever the standards call for — and how they’re faring in comparison to their white, higher-income, native-born and non-disabled peers.

The bill also preserves a related accountability measure — the requirement that states allow students to take the tests used for the National Assessment of Education Progress. These tests are the same for the same grade levels throughout the country and remain relatively consistent over time.

NAEP can thus report quite reliable long-term trends. And it does so for individual states, with some relevant break-outs, e.g., by race, ethnicity and eligibility for free or reduced-price school meals — a common surrogate for low family income.

What this means is that there will still be a way to gauge the tests states themselves use to test core competencies — and to a limited extent, such progress as they report for some of the disadvantaged groups that President Johnson hoped would get a “passport from poverty” through “quality and equality in … [their] schooling.”

 

 

 

 


Food Hardship Still Common Nationwide and in DC

April 27, 2015

The Food Research and Action Center’s latest food hardship report delivers some moderately good news about households nationwide. But the news is only comparatively good — and pretty awful for households in some parts of the country.

How FRAC Reports Food Hardship

As I’ve written before, FRAC uses survey data Gallop collects on an ongoing basis from a large sample of households. They’re asked, among other things, “Have there been times in the last 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?”

A “yes” is what FRAC refers to as food hardship. It’s roughly equivalent to what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls food insecurity. But obviously, there’s more than just insecurity in not being able to afford enough food.

FRAC, indeed, entitles its report How Hungry Is America? The answers actually tell what percent of American households were hungry at least some of last year — nationwide and in each state and the District of Columbia.

The report also includes household hunger rates for each of the 100 largest metro areas. These combine survey data for 2013 and 2014 so they’ll be reasonably accurate for what are mostly smaller populations.

The Big Food Hardship Picture

More than one in six households — 17.2% — experienced food hardship in 2014, according to the survey responses. This is hardly a figure to crow about. But it’s the first time the rate has been this low since the recession set in.

It hit 19.5% during the last four months of 2008, then varied from nearly as high to nearly as low as the latest rate. The latest rate held constant throughout the year, as apparently the earlier dips didn’t.

We see much more variation among states. The 2014 food hardship rate was over 19% in a dozen states — and nearly 25% in Mississippi. In only one state — North Dakota — was the rate less than 10%.

The picture further dims when we turn to the large metro areas — technically, the metropolitan statistical areas the federal Office of Management and Budget has carved out for agencies’ “statistical activities.”

Food hardship rates were higher than the national rate in all but 35 of the MSAs — and over 20% in 30 of them. These were mostly in the South and Mid-West, but we see pockets of widespread food hardship elsewhere, e.g., in several of California’s major agricultural centers.

Might it be that the law denying SNAP (food stamp) benefits to undocumented immigrants — and most of those here legally for less than five years — explains those egregiously high California rates?

Food Hardship in DC

The District’s food hardship rate was 15.9% — or nearly one in six households. This puts it just about smack-dab in the middle of the state ranking. Though the local unemployment rate has dipped, the District’s food hardship rate was a bit higher last year than in 2012 — and its ranking much higher, i.e., comparatively worse.

As I’ve remarked before, ranking the District among states if problematic because it’s a city — and would be even if granted statehood. But the MSA ranking is no better because the District is part of an area that includes some very well-off suburbs.

This is the perennial problem — and more consequential — with the affordability criteria for publicly-subsidized housing programs. We see it here in the fact that the MSA the District belongs to has a food hardship rate of 13.1% — the fourth lowest among the large metro areas.

Policy Takeaways

We can look at food hardship from two angles. One is not enough income. Too many people still jobless (and here in the District, half of them longer than unemployment insurance benefits cover).

Deplorably low cash benefits from other sources, e.g., Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income. Too many jobs that don’t pay enough to support a family — or even a single person. Etc.

The other angle is a not strong enough anti-hunger safety net. I call it that because what we have, more in some places than others, is broader than the major federally-funded nutrition assistance programs we usually think of. Think, for example, about our donor-supported food pantries and meal services.

FRAC, however, understandably focuses on the largest of the federal anti-hunger programs — SNAP (the food stamp program). Republicans are clearly hostile to SNAP in its current form — if not to the program itself, than to funding it at the level needed to make hunger as rare as it ought to be in this country.

We know that SNAP benefits are too low to cover a full month’s worth of groceries — let alone a mix that would make for a healthful diet. We know, as I remarked above, that many immigrants can’t get them.

We know that the work requirements imposed on able-bodied adults without dependents cut them off from SNAP, even though they can’t find work or get into a qualifying job training program.

The Farm Bill that Congress finally passed last year could have addressed these problems. Instead, we were lucky that it didn’t make the last worse. And now, House Republicans may actually take a stab at converting SNAP to a block grant, as their budget plans have envisioned for five years now.

It’s sad when anti-hunger advocates and allies in the broader human needs community have to invest their limited resources in defense of a program that could do more to alleviate food hardship.

Sadder that some unknown number of people in nearly 20 million* households didn’t always have enough to eat last year.

* This is my calculation, based on the Census Bureau’s 2014 count of households.

 


DC TANF Program Short-Changed Core Purposes

April 23, 2015

My last post focused on the “cautionary tale” we can find in how states spent their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds. Now here, as promised, is what we learn about the District of Columbia’s TANF spending.*

The figures are somewhat dated, but they’re still relevant to decisions the DC Council must make as it works on the Mayor’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

The District reported $254 million spent on TANF in 2013. Twenty-three percent went for cash assistance. This is a tad higher than the percent reported for 2012. But a family of three was still left at 26% of the federal poverty line. And that’s about where it is now, unless it’s one of the 6,300 families whose benefits have been cut three times already.

They’ll get zero, come October if the Council doesn’t approve the Mayor’s proposal to give them a one-year reprieve. Even if it does, our three-person family will have to get along somehow on $156 a month — roughly 9% of the current FPL.

The Bowser administration justifies the reprieve on the basis of continuing weaknesses in the employment component of the District’s TANF program.

I’ve previously reported the results of an audit that focused on outcomes for the parents facing benefit cut-offs who were actually referred to a contractor for job training and/or help in finding a job. Not encouraging.

But there are two other parts to this story. One is that some parents have had to wait for nearly a year to get those job-related services. This may be in part because the Gray administration froze additional funds for them.

And that’s perhaps because the Department of Human Services didn’t spend all the TANF employment funds in its budget, according to the new director. We certainly see what seems to be under-spending in the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report I’m using here.

Only 15% of TANF funds spent on work-related activities in 2013. And even this was a marked improvement over 2012, when only 7% went for what surely ought to be a top priority for a TANF program.

At the same time, the District spent an unusually low percent of its TANF funds on administration and systems — 2%, as compared to a nationwide 7%.

This matters because the DC Council enacted exemptions from the benefits phase-out for families facing specified hardships, i.e., difficulties, beyond the usual, that parents would face trying to support themselves and their kids.

One, added for the current year, would temporarily stop the time clock for mothers with infants to care for. But the department hasn’t actually granted this exemption. The reason, we’re told, is that it doesn’t have the computer capacity to suspend time-counting for the moms and their babies.

I personally believe that the TANF time limits merit rethinking altogether. DHS itself is looking into a policy that would convert the one-time hardship exemptions for at least some of the designated families and perhaps others into hardship extensions, as federal law has always allowed.

But that’s not even on the drawing board yet. The proposed reprieve is on the Council’s must-decide agenda.

A rollback of the benefits cuts should be too, given what we know about job training waiting lists — and the many months families had to wait for the assessments used to decide what training and/or other services they should get to give them a reasonable chance of success in the workplace.

Beyond these obviously urgent issues, the Council should, I think, take a hard look at how DHS spends its TANF dollars. In 2013, the department spent nearly as much on “non-assistance” as on work activities. What’s in this catch-all category is a mystery. Not the department’s fault, but rather a flaw in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ reporting format.

The new DHS director, unlike her predecessor, shared a break-out of TANF spending with parties interested enough to have attended a recent briefing. Some money here, some there, some someplace else.

I doubt the Council has ever delved into the dispersal of TANF funds. Every dollar may support something worthwhile. But the mechanism is hardly responsible — let alone transparent — budgeting.

And it inevitably diverts funds from cash support for very poor families and from work-related services that can help the parents get to the point where they can pay for their families needs.

These, I think most of us view as core purposes of the TANF program. And both the CBPP report and everything else we know suggests they’re being shorted.

* The TANF funds spent include the District’s federal block grant share and what it claimed as its maintenance of effort, i.e., what it spent of its own funds, plus funds that some nonprofits spent on at least on of the program’s four major goals.

UPDATE: Shortly after I finished this post, I learned of a petition the Fair Budget Coalition has created to drum up Council support for the proposed reprieve. Some on the Council, I’m told, are in need of persuasion. So I hope those of you who are District residents will sign. You’ll find the petition here.


Not Much Spent to Move Families From Welfare to Work

April 20, 2015

Nothing new in the big picture we get from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ update on how states spend their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds. But even the same-old is timely, both because of what’s going on at the federal level and because we’ve got things brewing here in the District of Columbia.

I’m going to split these into two posts because the pressing issues are as different as the proclivities of the majorities in the Capitol building and those of the leaders in the city its dome looms over.

State spending and the federal policy implications first.

As you may know, Republicans on Capitol Hill — and conservatives they listen to — still view TANF as the model anti-poverty program. Time limits, rigid work requirements, lots of state flexibility and an ever-diminishing fraction of the federal budget. What’s not, for them, to like?

So we see another House budget plan that would convert both Medicaid and SNAP (the food stamp program) to block grants somewhat like TANF. States would get a fixed amount of funding, no matter what befalls their economies or drives up needs for other reasons. They would have the flexibility to reduce benefits and/or further restrict eligibility so as to manage with what they get.

States have had such flexibility — and then some — since welfare as we knew it ended in 1996. And they’ve received the same dollar amount in block-grant funds ever since.

Most of us, I think believe TANF should do two main things. It should provide a safety net for poor families with children. And it should help the parents get to the point where they can earn enough to pay for their families’ needs.

Yet states spent, on average, 28% of their TANF funds* on cash assistance in 2013, the latest year the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has reported figures for. Even states that spent higher percents provided benefits too low to lift a family of three out of deep poverty, i.e., above 50% of the federal poverty line.

More remarkably, states spent, on average, just 8% of their TANF funds on work activities and supports to make participating in these activities possible, e.g., childcare subsidies, transportation.

Large disparities among states, as you might imagine. Yet every state spent at least some funds on programs not exclusively — or even primarily — for TANF-eligible families, e.g., child welfare services, Earned Income Tax Credit refunds, early childhood education.

However worthy these may be, states seem to be using their flexibility to shore them up at the expense of essential supports and services for TANF families. A dozen states spent at least half their TANF funds this way.

In short, a “cautionary tale,” as CBPP calls this prime example of the block-granting approach to safety-net programs.

* Here and throughout this post, TANF funds include federal block grant funds and what states claimed as their maintenance of effort, i.e. what they spent of their own funds and, in some cases, funds that nonprofits spent on any of the program’s four major goals.


Another Take on the Proposed DC Sales Tax Increase

April 16, 2015

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute makes a case for the proposed increase in the District of Columbia’s sales tax. It’s persuasive. And the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’m persuaded that the increase will serve the interests of some of the District’s poorest residents better than a campaign to replace it.

So, in a semi-retraction of my earlier post, here’s what DCFPI says, fleshed out for those who haven’t been immersed in the issues and punctuated with remarks of my own.

The increase is very small. It would add a quarter of a penny per dollar to the purchase price of anything subject to the sales tax. DCFPI has figured that poor families would probably have to pay at most $25 more a year.

The District needs additional revenues for homeless services. The Mayor has said that the additional tax revenues would fund the first steps in making reforms laid out in the new strategic plan adopted by the Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Her budget would, among other things, provide more permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless individuals and families with a chronically homeless adult member.

It would convert a pilot rapid re-housing program for individuals into a regular program and expand it so that more of them who don’t need PSH could move from shelter into housing they’ll be able to afford — at least, till their short-term subsidy expires.

It would create some new, specially-targeted housing vouchers for individuals and families who no longer need the intensive services PSH provides, but can’t afford market-rate rents. Individuals and families who come to the end of their term in rapid re-housing, but still can’t afford those rents would also be eligible for the vouchers.

The budget would also dedicate funds to begin the process of closing the over-large, decrepit DC General family shelter. About $4.9 million would pay rent to landlords who’ve offered up units — thus moving 84 families into more habitable living quarters swiftly.

All worthwhile investments, I think you’ll agree.

Other recent changes in the District’s tax code would more than offset the increased sales tax burden on lower-income residents. The DC Council enacted a higher standard deduction for income taxes last year. It expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit for childless adults, enabling them to get the same credit as from the federal EITC.

And it raised the income threshold for Schedule H property tax relief, which benefits renters, as well as homeowners. Elderly residents get a higher tax credit too.

Now, of course, residents with no earned income and not enough income from any other source to owe income taxes or pay rent won’t benefit from these changes. But “a large share of lower-income households” would come out ahead, even with the sales tax increase, according to DCFPI.

The Tax Revision Commission recommended the increase. Now, the Commission need hardly be the last word on the District’s tax policies. In fact, at least one of its recommendations made me cringe — a five-fold, plus increase in the dollar value of estates exempt from our local estate tax. (DCFPI didn’t like this either.)

At the same time, the Commission’s recommendations have credibility where it counts. The income tax and EITC changes I mentioned above originated with the Commission. So from a political perspective, the sales tax increase stands a better chance in the Council than some more progressive revenue raisers coming out of left field (pun intended). And we already have some evidence that any increase is likely to encounter headwinds.

The increase would make the sales tax rate the same as Maryland’s and Virginia’s. The point, I think, is not that the District should model its tax policies on its neighbors’. It’s rather that the new sales tax rate wouldn’t be higher than theirs — and thus tend to shift retail purchases across the borders.

Perhaps DCFPI is also giving preemptive reassurance to Councilmembers who’ve used Maryland and/or Virginia tax rates as arguments against tax increases here. Whether this strategy will work remains to be seen. It doesn’t seem to have gotten Finance and Revenue Committee Chairman Jack Evans on board. Nor will it, I suspect. But he’s only one Councilmember out of what will soon be twelve.

Bottom line: I doubt the Council will adopt an alternative, more progressive revenue raiser to support reforms in our homeless services system. And I’m quite sure it won’t shift nearly $19 million from other programs to support them while leaving revenues alone.

If we want those homeless service reforms, then we’ve seemingly got to settle for a less than ideal way of getting money for them. And this won’t be the end of the story anyway because the sales tax revenues won’t cover the costs of putting all those needed reforms in place.

 



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