Destiny unwritten

Earlier this month, President Obama welcomed back to school the students at Masterman Demonstration School in Philadelphia, Pa., and young learners across America. As always, the president delivered a passionate speech, rightfully telling the students that they should dream big and strive through hard work to accomplish their individual goals. I agree with the president when he said nothing in life is going to have a greater impact on the success of America’s youth than education.

However, as I listened to the president’s speech, a single sentence stood out and resonated with me: “Nobody gets to write your destiny but you.” I wish this statement were entirely true. But for young learners who might happen to be poor, Congress also writes a portion of that destiny. 

As part of the No Child Left Behind law, the federal government currently allocates funds to local school districts in order to address the negative effects of poverty upon student success rates. These “Title I” funds are the largest source of federal funds for public schools, accounting last year for more than $14 billion. These funds are allocated to school districts through a hodgepodge of formulas, including two separate weighting systems. With regard to the weighting systems, the allocations for each district are determined by the greater of the number of impoverished students or the percentage of impoverished students. The larger outcome of the two is then applied to that district. 

The intent of the weighting system, justly, is to send more funds to school districts with high concentrations of poverty. However, the unintended consequence is creation of a discriminatory system, where highly populated districts receive more funding at the expense of smaller districts, even if the smaller districts have higher poverty rates. Following me?

If two school districts have identical percentages of poverty, but one is larger than the other, under the weighted number formula the larger district will still receive more funding. Nationally, there is only one pie. Taking a larger piece puts other districts at a distinct disadvantage. 

The inequity that afflicts so many rural communities is so drastic that nearly 82 percent of rural districts in the nation do not have enough students to receive any increase based upon number weighting. 

Probably most concerning, is that total dollar amount per Title I student in a large district with a low poverty rate might be greater than that for a student in a smaller district with a higher poverty rate. Complicated formulas aside, it quickly becomes apparent that someone is being shortchanged. 

In my home state of Pennsylvania, the federal government allocated a little more than $550 million last school year for the roughly 314,000 Title I eligible students. The disparity per Title I eligible student throughout the state varied widely from $815 to $2,689. In rural Pennsylvania, we have a lot of experience stretching a buck, but the differences are staggering. We receive lower amounts when we also have the added expense of busing children who reside far from the schools. 

Another provision in the law increases funding per Title I eligible student for states that spend more on each student. According to the Formula Fairness Campaign and based on Department of Education data, in Pennsylvania the federal government spends 45 percent more on a disadvantaged child in Philadelphia, over an equally or more disadvantaged student in rural Philadelphia, Miss. 

Next year, Congress will be looking at reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. With this in mind, we should address the disparities that exist in education funding in order to ensure that every student truly has the opportunity to write his or her own destiny.

Rep. Thompson serves on the Education and Labor Committee