Does Title I Funding Go Holy to Fund Private School Students?

Blog Post
April 16, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI's first visit to the United States is spurring supporters of Catholic schools and the media to highlight the decline of and obstacles facing Catholic schools. Demographic changes, a reduced supply of priests and nuns to serve as teachers, and the aftermath of sex abuse scandals have acted to undermine Catholic schooling in many places. This attention to the crisis in Catholic education has also highlighted a little known fact: federal education programs provide support to educate low-income students not just in public schools, but also in private schools.

When spending federal money, school districts are required to provide equitable services to private school students and teachers. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act—Title IX, Part E, Subpart 1—enshrines this right to equitable services. Ed Money Watch will use the Pope's visit as an opportunity to clarify how federal funds are distributed to and spent on private school students and teachers (not private schools).

Title I Funds for Supplemental Instruction

NCLB requires school districts to evenly distribute their Title I funds among eligible, poor students in both public and private schools (those private schools that choose to participate). Districts do not distribute Title I funds directly to private schools (as they do for public schools), however, but rather use the per-pupil Title I allocation to pay for support services for private school students.

Typically, this means district provide supplementary instruction for private students, delived either by public school teachers or through a third-party contractor. For example, eligible students may receive targeted, pull-out sessions in school, in computer labs, or through outside counseling or tutoring. Districts have to consult with the private schools to design and implement a program that will meet the needs of the eligible students. Other Title I services and programs, such as professional development for teachers of Title I students, follow the same model, as does the Reading First program.

According to the most recent National Assessment of Title I, one percent of Title I funds in 2004-05 provided services for 188,000 private school students. Given that most of these students were likely in elementary school, this represents about five percent of the total 3.7 million K-8 private school population. In 2005-06, 16 percent of all private schools, and 37 percent of Catholic schools, reported participating in Title I (vs. 56 percent of all public schools in 2004-05).

Other Federal Money for Private School Students

Other federal elementary and secondary education programs are also subject to the same mandate of equitable services for private school students and teachers, because they are governed by the Uniform Provisions in Title IX, Part E of NCLB:

[The district] shall, after timely and meaningful consultation with appropriate private school officials provide to those children and their teachers or other educational personnel, on an equitable basis, special educational services or other benefits that address their needs under the program.

For example, when distributing its Title II teacher training funds, a district must provide the same professional development opportunities to public and private school teachers.

Private school students are also eligible to receive funding from the National School Lunch Program and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) grants. If students qualify for free or reduced price lunch (their family's income is below 185 percent of the poverty line), their private school can apply for cash reimbursements from the program for each meal served to an eligible student. Private schools approved by the Department of Education can receive federal IDEA funds from the district, proportionate to their share of special education students.

Under-Utilization of Federal Funds

While there is a fair amount of federal money available to private schools, particularly those serving low-income children, not all private schools take advantage of these federal funds. This means that the number of private school students eligible for federal support is higher than the number who actually receive federal services—and the amount of federal money going to private schools is lower than it could be.

There are several reasons why private schools do not make use of all available federal funding. First, federal money comes with a lot of federal requirements. For example, the School Lunch Program has nutritional requirements for its meals, and every school must adopt a wellness policy with nutrition goals. IDEA has specific "individualized education plan" (IEP) requirements for disabled students who receive federal funds.

In addition, some private schools choose not to expend the administrative effort necessary to obtain federal money. For example, for private school students to receive Title I services, their schools have to negotiate and set up arrangements with the district. And private schools must deal with state Departments of Education in order to receive school lunch reimbursements. Some private schools don't have the administrative capacity for this, and many conclude the money is worth the bother.

President Bush is convening a White House summit on inner city children and faith-based schools sometime this spring, at which these federal funding issues will likely be discussed. It's unlikely, however, that anything substantive will change with federal funding of private schools in the near future—unless John McCain decides to make increased federal support for private schools a part of his campaign agenda.