Biden goes big on Title I funding for low-income students

President Biden is proposing an unprecedented increase in funding for programs that aim to boost schools with low-income students, betting that it could help scale back some of the disparities in educational outcomes.

In his budget proposal for 2022, Biden asked Congress to more than double the amount spent on Title I grants for such schools, from $16.5 billion to $36.5 billion.

The gap between funding for poor and rich districts is substantial, and widens along racial lines.

A 2018 report from The Education Trust, an advocacy group, found that districts with the largest proportions of racial minorities received $1,800, or 13 percent, less in state and local funding per student than those with the fewest students of color.

While Biden’s move to dramatically increase Title I funding won praise from education activists, some critics say the program is in need of reform, and more needs to be done to level out funding inequities.

“No student in any state should have to accept a lower quality education simply because of where they live or the color of their skin,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), chair of both the House Appropriations Committee and the subcommittee that covers education funding said last week.

But the vast majority of funding for schools comes from the local and state level, meaning that even significant increases in federal funding may only make a slight dent.

“With just a handful exceptions, I’m concerned that most states do not sufficiently prioritize funding for high poverty districts and communities of color,” DeLauro noted, pointing to an issue that extra Title I funds may not correct.

The Title I program has been around in one form or another for more than half a century, created as part of former President Lyndon Johnson’s slate of Great Society programs. It was intended to level out the playing field for schools serving large numbers of students living in poverty.

That meant it came with certain strings attached to ensure the funds would “supplement, not supplant” local and state education dollars. That mandate, which education advocates say is crucial, resulted in odd bureaucratic outcomes, said Rick Hess, director of educational policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

“There’s a long history over whether the Title I funds are spent responsibly, and even that Title I causes other dollars to be spent less responsibly,” he said, pointing to reports that schools would buy two separate sets of supplies to prove that Title I funds were solely being used for Title I students, and inabilities to eliminate redundant positions to ensure maintenance of funds.

“I’m deeply skeptical, in part because I think it makes some of the existing problems worse,” Hess said.

But Ary Amerikaner, vice president for P-12 education at The Education Trust, noted that Congress has already moved to ban intrusive audits requiring educators to bend over backward.

“That is no longer the law of the land, but what is really important is to make sure the ‘supplement not supplant’ provision is enforced,” she said.

Advocates such as Amerikaner say that the additional funding is an important first step in addressing wild gaps in education funding.

“There used to be a debate about whether money mattered at all, but that debate is closed. There’s lots of really great evidence about how important money is in education in general,” she said.

But the boost to Title I could be only one part of an effective strategy to combat the inequities in school funding.

One problem Amerikaner noted is that Title I allocates funds using a series of four complex formulas that may not distribute resources perfectly, meaning that $20 billion in additional Title I spending might not fill the $23 billion school racial funding gap as much as expected.

Furthermore, she said, funding should be tied to state and local reforms to ensure greater equity for the 90 percent of funding that comes from the state and local level.

“If we’re going to close the long-standing inequities in school funding, we will need systemic change to how non-federal funds are allocated,” she said.

Kristin Blagg, a researcher at the Urban Institute’s Education Policy Center, takes it a step further, noting that even if states were to better distribute their funds, major education differences exist between states.

“Title I is not going to achieve equity between a high-spending state and a low-spending state,” she said. “We have to think strategically on how to get states to spend more money on education.”

AEI’s Hess says lawmakers have an opportunity to include reforms that could make the program run more smoothly.

“Before putting more money into Title I, I would much rather see an ambitious effort to retool Title I,” he said, arguing that many of the problems that plague impoverished students can be better addressed outside the context of schools.

That proposal is in contrast to some of the criticism Biden has received from Republicans over plans to spend big on family and social support, such as increasing the child tax credit, making it fully refundable and moving to distribute it on a monthly basis.

“Some of those are exactly right because they give the families resources to provide for their children,” Hess said.

Tags Education in America Joe Biden Rosa DeLauro

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