Schools need more federal dollars, but Title I is not the right tool for the job
Responding to the COVID-19 crisis, Congress has sent more federal funds to schools than ever before, distributing aid proportional to funding for an existing program, Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Title I sends more money to high-poverty schools, so this choice reflects a well-intentioned effort to give more aid to places that are suffering most. But funding under the program is not a clean proxy for economic disadvantage. Congress should turn to simpler and better alternatives for distributing much-needed additional funding for school infrastructure and to address educational inequities.
Part of the War on Poverty, Title I initially used a simple formula, giving money to school districts for each poor child they served. Now the program uses four separate formulas; overall, there is still more money for poorer districts, but with plenty of exceptions. The opaque Title I formulas have long meant school leaders, parents and other stakeholders cannot understand why some districts get more than others. Indeed, the variation in funding is so poorly understood that Congress mandated a formula study in the last reauthorization of ESEA.
Congress has funded separate Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds in each of the three major COVID-19 relief bills. The three ESSER funds total about $190 billion, swamping the $16.5 billion per year for Title I, even considering that ESSER funds can be spent over several years. Allocating such a large pot proportional to Title I has increased attention to the arbitrary and opaque aspects of the formulas, creating confusion and political pushback.
Some of the oddities in Title I allocations arise because all four formulas send more money to states where education spending is higher and to small states. For example, Colorado, Maryland and Wyoming all have child poverty rates around 12 percent; but from the three rounds of ESSER, Colorado will receive about $2,000 per pupil, Maryland $3,300 and Wyoming almost $5,000. Within states, two of the formulas direct more funds to larger districts compared to smaller ones with the same child poverty rate. For example, Los Angeles Unified School District and Lynwood Unified School District in California both have child poverty rates of about 21 percent. LAUSD is estimated to receive almost $10,000 per pupil from the three ESSER funds, compared to about $5,300 per pupil for the smaller Lynwood.
In the American Jobs Plan, President Biden proposes $100 billion for school infrastructure, again distributed proportional to Title I. And his budget asks Congress to double funding for the Title I program itself. Funding for school infrastructure is long overdue, and Biden’s campaign promise to expand Title I communicates the desire to promote equity in public education. Fortunately, there are alternative approaches to meet these goals.
For infrastructure funding, Congress could use a simple formula dividing the pie based on both the total number of children in a district and the number of poor children. The Governors Fund in the CARES Act used this approach, directing 40 percent of funds based on the number of poor children and 60 percent based on the total number of children and young adults in each state. Congress could dial up the weight on children in poverty to concentrate funding in the most disadvantaged school districts or dial it down for a more universal program.
Similarly, Congress could increase ongoing support for high-poverty schools without the mess current Title I formulas produce. In the longer run, Congress could revamp the Title I formulas to better target funds to the highest-poverty schools, but that would require reauthorization of ESEA — no small political feat. For now, Congress could instead expand funding for special education through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which also uses child poverty in its formula. The past year has been especially challenging for students with disabilities, and IDEA has long been underfunded. Or if policymakers are committed to Title I as a funding mechanism, they can appropriate more funds to the basic grant.
The pandemic’s unprecedented disruption to the lives and education of America’s children has shone a light on long-standing inequities in our schools. A growing body of research supports the common-sense notion that school infrastructure is critical for learning and health. It is past time for Congress to address these concerns with additional funding distributed with an eye to equity. While Title I has long been the go-to federal program for those concerned with equity, it isn’t the only option.
Nora Gordon is associate professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy and author of “Common-Sense Evidence: The Education Leader’s Guide to Using Data and Research.” Sarah Reber is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at the Brookings Institution and associate professor at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.