Let’s fix education funding for low income children

Fifty years ago, Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), and declared “it to be the policy of the United States to provide financial assistance to school districts serving areas with concentrations of children from low-income families.” 

Seems straightforward, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, over the last few decades, Congress has allocated more money to wealthier states to the detriment of low-income children living in other states. As a consequence, students in 32 states and the District of Columbia are cheated out of federal funds every year.

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But there’s a change on the horizon that will fix this lopsided policy.

Last month, the Senate Education Committee, on which I serve, debated a change to the bill’s funding formula, which is the main federal support for teachers and principals serving low-income students.  I argued that Chairman Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderChildren’s health-care bill faces new obstacles Overnight Health Care: Schumer calls for tying ObamaCare fix to children's health insurance | Puerto Rico's water woes worsen | Dems plead for nursing home residents' right to sue Schumer calls for attaching ObamaCare fix to children's health insurance MORE’s (R-Tenn.) Every Child Achieves Act should completely remove an outdated provision in the bill that has frozen federal support to states based on population numbers from 2001.  I found that the removal of this clause would finally equalize a disparity in funding, allowing resources to flow to where disadvantaged kids are living today, not where they lived in 2001. To me, this was a clear solution to an unjust funding problem that funneled money away from our most at-risk children.

Population shifts have been dramatic since 2001, with states such as Colorado, Florida, Maine, Nevada, North Carolina and Tennessee among others all experiencing double-digit percent increases in low income families since 2001. 

But because Congress didn’t correct the problem in 2001, students in these states have been denied up to billions of dollars they deserved based on this discriminatory policy.  For decades, children in my state of North Carolina and those in many others have never received these funds because of Congress’ reluctance to correct this discrepancy. 

Thankfully, the Committee agreed with me and now we will soon see funds flow to those at risk students who need it most across the country, instead of in certain states that have seen their populations decrease over the last decade.

During committee consideration of this education bill last month, senators from states who have grown accustomed to this unjust formula fought against Chairman Alexander’s change based solely on the view that their states would lose money, even while admitting the policy they sought to continue only served to hurt other low income students across the nation.  After extensive debate, the committee agreed to gradually remove this outdated provision. 

Unfortunately, some lawmakers would like to continue the same policy that has existed for the past fifteen years, meaning taxpayer money going to classroom seats without poor children, while deserving students are denied.  

In effect, these individuals believe that children in Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania matter more than children in North Carolina, Nevada, or Florida.

This position cheats the majority of states – and to be clear, more states are being cheated by this policy than not – because a handful of states refuse to allow money they’ve confiscated for years to flow to areas it belongs. 

I firmly believe that when federal money is intended to assist the neediest Americans, it must actually go to that very group.  Otherwise, we are shortchanging the people it was intended to serve.

We can argue amongst ourselves about the appropriate federal education policies, but we should all agree that when the federal government proclaims to spend education money on our poorest children, the federal government should deliver on its promise.  

Burr is North Carolina’s senior senator, serving since 2005. He sits on the Finance and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committees.