How More Flexibility in Federal Education Funding Will Hurt Low-Income and Minority Students

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The U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce recently sent to the full House a bill that is designed to provide more flexibility to schools in how they spend federal education money, but will actually hurt low-income students, students of color and English learners.

The bill would create what amounts to a $15 billion slush fund for school administrators and state bureaucrats, who will have the ability to divert federal funds earmarked specifically for low-income students (Title I), English language learning students (Title III), and other groups in order to pay for other things. So for instance, school districts would be able to siphon off money from Title I schools and purchase new technology for all their schools, rich and poor alike.

On its face, this might seem like a good thing – giving schools more flexibility to spend money how they best see fit – but the reason that federal dollars are earmarked to specific communities is because states and school districts traditionally have never done a great job at spending money in an equitable way so that all students have access to a great education.

New data from the Department of Education released last month finds that, for instance, schools serving mostly African-American students are twice as likely to have teachers with only one or two years of experience than are schools within the same district that serve mostly White students. Only 2 percent of students with disabilities are taking at least one Advanced Placement class and English language learning high school students are 6 percent of the high school population, but make up 15 percent of students for whom algebra is the highest-level math course they’ve taken by 12th grade.

We know that states and local school districts are strapped for money for any number of things, but this bill is not the solution. Taking money – read: teachers, reading specialists, tutors — from students they are already not serving all that well will only lead to a worsening of dropout rates and achievement gaps.

This is not just hyperbole. Rep. John Kline, R. Minn., who chairs the committee, has been very forthright in saying that he doesn’t see anything wrong with allowing schools to take money from poor kids to pay for other things.  In a July 7 interview on Bill Bennett’s Morning in America radio program, Rep. Kline said:

 “[T]he point is, what my point and what the superintendents will tell you and tell me is: ‘look, we need, for example, to upgrade computers across the whole school and it will help all the kids. I don’t have the money to do that and I need it, I got money over here for say, English Language Learners and I really don’t need all that money there but nevertheless there is a constituency, or a sponsorship that says oh no no, you can’t spend that money in another category. I think it inhibits the progress of all the kids.”

It is absolutely true that schools need more money. Since 2008, 34 states and the District of Columbia have cut funding to K-12 education, according to data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  We absolutely need to get more resources to our public schools. But the way to do this is not to take money from poor kids, who are already getting a substandard education and lack access to classes that so many wealthier kids and their families take for granted.

We know that federal dollars only make up about 6 percent of all the money spent on K-12 education. If Congress wants to have a conversation about increasing federal investment in K-12 education so that the 6 percent number goes up considerably and schools have more federal dollars to invest in other areas of education, we should have it. But we should not use money earmarked for those students most in need to pay for other things that more powerful constituencies will pressure states and districts to support.

A fundamental premise of the original federal education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed in 1965, was that children living in concentrated poverty needed – indeed deserved – supplemental resources in order to achieve at the same academic levels as other children.

In fact, Congress has actually increased funding to the highest poverty schools over time.  According to Charles Barone, director of federal policy for Democrats for Education Reform, based on data provided on request from the U.S. Department of Education:

The amendments to Title I made by Congress via NCLB greatly increased the targeting of funds to high-poverty schools. In 2001, Title I allocated about the same amount ($800) per poor student regardless of the concentration of poverty in the school they attended. Due to the recognition that it was high-poverty schools that faced the greatest challenges in educating students, Congress changed the formula with the result that by 2010, the amount per poor student in the highest poverty schools was about 25 percent higher than the per poor pupil amount for low-poverty schools, a figure that will grow over time as Congress continues to put additional monies into the new formula. If one includes the recently passed FY2011 budget, the cumulative shift in Title I education dollars to the neediest 20 percent of schools in the U.S. since NCLB is $6.5 billion. To put it in local terms, that’s a lot of bake sales.

If we know that low-income students, minority students and English learners are already not getting what they need to succeed – whether measured in terms of effective teachers, access to a college prep curriculum, or safe learning environments —  why would we think that taking money away from them is the right way to fix education for all?

Dianne Piche is senior counsel for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. A version of this column was first published on the council's blog. It is reprinted here with permission.