The heated education debate shouldn’t leave underserved students behind

“Supplement, not supplant.” These are the words at the heart of a national education debate about how we finance the education of economically disadvantaged students. While the federal government has been providing Title I funding for these students for more than 50 years, it is the U.S. Department of Education’s forthcoming regulations on how states must spend these funds that has sparked a new debate. While they are only three words, they say a lot about not only the kind of education we believe all students should receive, but also the path to achieving it.

Ever since President Lyndon Johnson, who once himself taught in a low-income school, put forth the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965, the spirit of the bill has been to alleviate the conditions of poverty. Title I of ESEA provides financial assistance to districts and schools with high percentages of children from low-income families to help ensure that all children meet high academic standards. When Title I was created, it was intended to supplement existing funds, rather than replace them, in order to provide students in high poverty schools with more equitable educational opportunities.

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I’m lucky to teach in a state, Minnesota, where districts serving the most low-income students get substantially more state funding than wealthier districts. That didn’t happen by accident; it took hard choices and some uncomfortable conversations amongst lawmakers and stakeholders to make that commitment. Today, third-graders in my school receive targeted reading and math support from expert teachers financed with Title I funds. These additional services play an important role in narrowing the achievement gap.

As an early-career teacher at a low-income school, I believe that the forthcoming “supplement not supplant” regulations have the potential to be deeply transformative for traditionally underserved students across the country. My experiences have shown how critical it is for students to receive the federal funds intended for them in addition to - rather than instead of - the state dollars to which they are entitled.

The reason people are debating “supplement not supplant” today is because the ESEA’s reauthorization, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), requires districts to explain how they distribute funds across schools. Under the new law, school districts must show that they do not give fewer state and local funds to schools receiving federal Title I funds, and the forthcoming regulations from the federal Department of Education will determine exactly what that means for school districts.

Some people say the Department would be overstepping its authority to have such strong regulations on “supplement, not supplant,” but the historic role of the Department has been to protect traditionally underserved kids and the stated purpose of ESEA is to increase educational equity.

Access to Title I funds is a civil rights issue and the time has come for millions of children in low-income schools to receive the funding to which they are entitled. According to Ed Trust’s annual Funding Gaps report, high-poverty districts receive $1,200 less per student than low poverty districts. Districts with high percentages of students of color receive on average $2,000 less than whiter school districts. Such disparities perpetuate even within districts, with 72% of school districts providing lower teacher salaries in Title I schools.

In order to make progress, we need to shift beyond narrow and divisive rhetoric. We can’t allow this debate, like so many other education debates, to become more about what is good for adults than for kids. It can’t be about how to make district administrators’ lives easier or about political jurisdiction, when we know in our hearts that it is about stopping the shortchanging of our most vulnerable students.

The Department of Education needs to provide states with much-needed guardrails to rethink how to fairly distribute Title I funds. Our most vulnerable students are relying on the Department of Education to follow through on the financial support promised more than 50 years ago.


Anthony Hernandez is a third-grade teacher at Global Academy in Columbia Heights Minnesota and a teacher leader for Educators 4 Excellence.