The recently-released House ESEA draft reauthorization bill makes substantial changes to the federal role in public education. Among other changes, the proposal significantly loosens requirements on how states and local school districts can spend education dollars. While more state and local control is a popular mantra, we would like to offer a few words of caution on a few provisions in the House bill. Mainly, these changes to existing law would essentially allow states and school districts to use federal funds previously intended to benefit specific, high-need populations however they see fit without requiring consistent state and local support.
- First, the bill would move several existing programs to Title I, Part A of the law. These programs, which provide specific funding streams to local school districts for services for migrant students, neglected and delinquent students, English language learners, rural students, and Indian education, would be moved to the same section that funds grants for low-income students. Currently, these programs are authorized and funded under various titles and subparts of NCLB separate from Title I, Part A. This change would enable Congress to provide a single appropriation for all Title I, Part A programs, blurring the lines between funding for the programs. Under the bill these five programs would total 9.0 percent of the annual Title I Part A allocation, which would be set at $16.7 billion for 2013.
At the same time, the bill includes a “flexibility” provision that would allow states and school districts to merge funds from these five programs, as well as set-asides for state administration and school improvement, and use them for any purposes covered by those programs or Title I, Part A Education for the disadvantaged. Under current law, states and districts are only allowed to transfer up to 50 percent of funds allocated under the Education Technology program (which is not funded in current law), the Safe and Drug-Free Schools program, and the school choice program into their Title I, Part A accounts. The five programs listed in the proposed flexibility provision are not included in any current flexibility provisions. Under the House proposal, states would have to notify the U.S. Department of Education and school districts would have to notify their state agencies if they intend to use any of the funding streams for alternative purposes. However, the proposal does not explicitly require states or districts to report how they repurposed the funds, what they were used for, or what programs or services were eliminated due to the flexibility.
By allowing states and districts to merge funds from several funding streams targeted for specific high-need populations, the House bill would give them license to overlook the needs of some students in exchange for others. While giving state and district leaders more autonomy and control over federal funds to tailor services to their students’ needs is important, these specialized federal programs exist to serve students that are typically ignored.
- Next, the House bill would allow any school that receives Title I, Part A funds to provide school-wide services, regardless of the percentage of students living below the poverty line, at that school. Currently, the No Child Left Behind Act only allows schools with poverty rates over 40 percent to use their Title I funds to provide school-wide services. This program is based on the assumption that all students at schools with such high poverty rates would benefit from additional services. In contrast, schools with poverty rates below 40 percent can use their Title I funds to implement interventions and services targeted just to eligible low-income students. Although the proposal would maintain the separate Targeted program, it seems unlikely that schools would opt to continue targeted programs when they could spread the funds among their whole population.
By eliminating the poverty threshold for school-wide programs, the bill would allow schools with relatively small low-income populations to use their Title I, Part A funds to provide services to their entire student population, the majority of which would not otherwise be eligible for interventions or additional services. Those schools would no longer have to provide targeted services to just their high-need students, meaning these students could get lost or overlooked in the shift.
- Finally, as we’ve written before, the House bill would eliminate the maintenance of effort provision of Title I, allowing state and local governments to cut per pupil or overall funding for education for districts but remain eligible for Title I funding. Current law allows a local school district to receive Title I Part A funds in an upcoming year only if state and local governments provided the district with at least 90 percent of the funding (per pupil or overall) that they provided in the preceding year. In other words, a district that received $8,000 per pupil in 2010 in state and local funds, must have received at least $7,200 per pupil (90 percent of $8,000) in 2011 to receive Title I funds in 2012.
Assuming that states and local governments would take advantage of this change and cut their education funding, federal funds could begin to account for a much higher percentage of per pupil education funding (currently around 10 percent). It is somewhat ironic that lawmakers that typically support limiting the federal role in education would support a bill that has the potential to increase the percentage of education spending the federal government supplies while allowing state and local governments to cut their own spending.
Each of these changes would have a great impact on how states and school districts are held accountable for the use of federal Title I funds. But all together they would allow states and school districts to dramatically change how they use federal funds for education, practically turning Title I into an all-purpose block grant. These changes, in the name of local control, could make the nation's highest-need students more vulnerable than ever.