The big fuss over school funding by Mandy McLaren

How Trump’s victory silenced a year-long debate (Or did it?)

WASHINGTON -- Raised voices and hurled accusations are nothing new in politics.

But while most Americans were paying attention to the raucous presidential campaign, one of this year’s most heated partisan arguments simmered in the background.

In a months-long steady drumbeat of tension, Republican lawmakers accused the Obama administration of concocting a regulatory scheme designed to usurp state power, while Democrats blamed Republicans for allowing the nation’s neediest children to fall through the cracks.   

Caught in the middle of a centuries-old tug-of-war over state and federal power is a question about how to fund poor schools in America. 

For decades, federal dollars have been set aside for disadvantaged students, with the majority of public school funding coming from state and local revenues.  According to the Obama administration, though, not all funding is being distributed equitably, with nearly 6,000 low-income schools coming up short. 

A complicated, decades-old problem

At the heart of the controversy is a three-word phrase of education policy jargon: supplement, not supplant.

 The first national education law was passed in 1965 as a part of the landmark civil rights legislation under President Lyndon B. Johnson.  Recognizing that it takes additional resources to meet the needs of poor children, the law provided federal funding for public schools with high concentrations of students living in poverty. 

Lawmakers discovered in the late 1960s that not all states were using these funds -- by then known as Title I money -- properly.  Some districts, particularly in the South, were diverting state and local school funding away from low-income schools and then using Title I money to fill in the budget gaps.

The net result? 

Money that was meant to be extra didn’t even level the playing field.

Congress responded in 1970 by adding a provision to the national education law requiring that Title I funds must “supplement, not supplant” state and local school funding.  The government at the time did not regulate how states should accomplish this.

More than 40 years later, the Obama administration and Democratic lawmakers say the nation’s poorest children are still being shortchanged.  According to the Department of Education, 3.3 million children are enrolled in high-poverty, or Title I, schools that receive less in state and local funding than non-Title I schools in the same district. 

School budgets are being shorted an average of about $440,000 per year, according to the Department of Education.

Obama administration: money matters

The Obama administration proposed new “supplement, not supplant” regulations earlier this year to address cases of inequitable funding.  Under the proposed rules, districts would have to show that a Title I school receives all the state and local funds it would otherwise receive if it were not a Title I school.  States that fail to show compliance could have their federal funds taken away.

This, the administration says, would redirect up to $2 billion back into high-poverty schools.

“More and more evidence now shows that money actually does make a difference,” said Scott Sargrad, managing director for K-12 education policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

Sargrad, who has testified before Congress on the proposed regulations, says inequitable funding creates concrete opportunity gaps for low-income students.

Wealthier schools are twice as likely to offer a full range of math and science courses and offer three times as many college-level Advanced Placement classes, according to the Department of Education.

“If we want kids to be successful in college, in a career and a path to the middle class, they need to have challenging opportunities in school,” Sargrad said.

A 2015 Northwestern University and University of California, Berkeley study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics showed that increasing per-pupil funding for low-income students leads to an increase in adult wages by almost 10 percent. 

Thirty civil rights groups, including The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, have thrown their support behind the Obama administration’s proposed rules. 

Liz King, director of education policy for The Leadership Conference, says that extra funding for disadvantaged students makes a big difference.

“Does money matter? I have never heard a parent, student or teacher tell me it doesn't matter how much money you have to educate a child,” she said.  “Teachers experience this on a daily basis when there’s not enough textbooks, there’s overcrowded classrooms and buildings are falling down.”

Republicans: leave decisions local

Congressional Republicans have urged Education Secretary John B. King Jr. to call off the proposed regulations.  They say the Democratic administration’s efforts contradict the intent of last year’s reauthorization of the national education law, which passed with broad bipartisan support and directed decision-making power back to the states.

“It’s not the federal government’s responsibility,” said David Cleary, chief of staff to Sen. Lamar Alexander, (R-TN), who chairs the Senate education committee.  “It’s up to the states to figure out how to use their resources.”

Republicans say the proposed rules would shift budgeting decisions to a centralized office, leaving school principals hamstrung by staffing choices they have no say in making.

Republicans have also found an unlikely ally in the debate – teacher unions. 

Eighty-six percent of the more than 3,500 public comments received by the Education Department about the proposed Title I regulations were submitted by members of the National Education Association, one of the country’s largest teacher unions. 

Republicans and the NEA warn that – because school budgets are often based on staffing rations and not dollars -- districts will need to initiate forced teacher transfers in order to meet the proposed requirements. 

Nora Gordon, associate professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy and an expert on Title I law, cautions that the proposed regulations could harm the very children they were intended to protect.

If teacher transfers are the only way to even out funding across a school district, principals won’t be willing to let go of their best teachers, Gordon says.

“Schools will give up the expensive, non-effective teacher,” said Gordon, who has testified before both the House and the Senate on the proposed regulations. “That is not good for kids in high poverty.”

Title I under Trump

“Congress will do everything in its power to ensure that this proposed rule never becomes final,” wrote 25 House and Senate Republicans in a letter to the Department of Education in early November.

Despite Republicans’ objections, the Obama administration’s proposed Title I funding rules neared finalization last month, almost guaranteeing a continued battle into the next administration.

Then, the improbable happened: Donald J. Trump was elected president.

Policy experts say it is now highly unlikely that the Education Department will try to push through its proposed regulations before Obama leaves office on Jan. 20.  If it does, Republicans have already vowed to use an obscure law known as the Congressional Review Act to repeal the rules.

Education insiders say that an even bigger fight could lie ahead, speculating that President-elect Trump may try to use Title I funds to fulfill a campaign pledge of investing $20 billion in school-choice measures.  His appointment of Betsy DeVos to lead the Education Department shows Trumps is serious about such a move, experts say.  DeVos is a vocal advocate of voucher programs that allow students to use public funds to attend private schools.

Taking funds out of public schools does not serve low-income children.
— Liz King, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

King, of The Leadership Conference, says that if the Trump administration does try to go near Title I funds for private school vouchers, it will be in for a fight.

 “We will hear a loud, unified voice pushing back on that idea,” she said.  “Taking funds out of public schools does not serve low-income children.”

The Senate will vote on DeVos’ appointment once Trump takes office next month. Only a simple majority is required, and she is expected to be confirmed.