July 18, 2011
Title I, Part A, the largest federal K-12 education program, is often considered sacred during budget negotiations. The program, which will provide $14.5 billion to school districts in fiscal year 2011, was created in 1965 by the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act to boost funding in school districts with high concentrations of low-income students. Despite the program’s status in budget negotiations, though, champions of the program rarely discuss how the funds are actually used in schools and whether they have a significant impact. Last week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report that examines the use of Title I, Part A funds in a sampling of schools around the country. Interestingly, the authors find distinctly different spending patterns in high-poverty and low-poverty districts, suggesting that Title I funds may not actually be going where they are needed most.
For example, the report finds that the high-poverty schools sampled spent a high percentage of their Title I funds on instructional support staff (like instructional aides and social workers, among other professionals), whereas low-poverty schools spent more of their funds on instructional staff (like teachers). So how can we explain these results? High-poverty schools are more likely to have higher concentrations of students saddled with major issues like homelessness, single-parent homes, or parents who are themselves less educated. Those factors increase the need for additional educational and personal support, taking away funding that would otherwise go to support teacher salaries.
Further, high-poverty schools often employ less qualified teachers than higher-income schools, reinforcing the gap between high- and low-income students. Needy schools are often staffed by teachers with less experience and fewer qualifications than those in wealthier schools, which can afford higher-quality teachers with higher salaries. Students in low-poverty districts therefore have an additional leg up on the students in higher-poverty districts who have potentially less effective teachers.
The GAO identified another factor that skews Title I spending in high-poverty schools. To comply with Title I requirements, districts with a higher percentage of schools labeled “in need of improvement” under No Child Left Behind, which tended to be larger, urban schools, must provide supplemental education services (like tutoring), offer transportation for students participating in school choice, and meet a minimum requirement for spending on professional development., It’s not surprising, then, that these districts typically spent a higher portion of their Title I funds on purchased services from outside vendors, placing further strain on their Title I budgets and drawing even more funds from instructional services to instead pay for support staff.
The GAO report also concludes that the vast majority of Title I dollars were directed to students in elementary schools. This was the case in eight of the twelve districts in the GAO’s sample. Through efforts like limits on class size, school district officials believed that the early grades offered the best opportunity to have a measurable impact on students. These results confirm an earlier U.S. Department of Education study that found 76 percent of Title I funds were targeted to elementary schools, while the percentage of economically disadvantaged students in those grades was much lower, only 57 percent.
The GAO report reaffirms much of the research available on Title I—namely, that high-poverty school districts represent students with a far more diverse set of needs, and that their schools respond in part by utilizing Title I funds to address these issues. Given that more than 90 percent of school districts receive Title I funds in some amount, the GAO report begs the question: Are too many districts getting federal funds that could have a larger impact elsewhere?
Further, Title I funds as they are currently distributed (by formula in federal law) rarely provide enough additional support to make up for existing disparities in state and local funding for low-income schools. The inconsistencies in how high- and low-poverty schools spend Title I funds confirm these patterns and suggest that many needs are still unmet. If champions of the Title I program really hope to support economically-disadvantaged students, they must look at how the dollars are used in diverse districts around the country and target those funds to the lowest-income schools most in need of funding and support.