The Barstow Unified School District in California’s Mojave Desert has more than its fair share of challenges, starting with aging schools and infrastructure. “Some schools are 60 years old. Our classroom technology is outdated, and our electrical, sewer and water lines are deteriorating,” said Superintendent Jeff Malan in a letter to parents in April. According to Malan, the district also has a high rate of poverty — eight in 10 students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. About half the district’s 6,000 students are Hispanic, and many are English-language learners, he said.
Malan needs to fix air-conditioning systems and leaky roofs, upgrade classrooms for STEM programs and recruit personnel. California spends less per pupil on education than most other states in the country, and Barstow’s anemic local tax base doesn’t provide much extra help. So, Malan welcomes federal funding as a much-needed boost.
Under a complicated formula based on poverty, roughly one-third of Barstow pupils (31.3 percent) are eligible for special funding under Title I of the Elementary & Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The law, passed in 1965 as part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, supplements state and local education funding to bolster students who are at risk of failing academically.
Last year, according to U.S. Department of Education figures, the Barstow school district received more than $2 million from Title I, which breaks down to $995 per eligible pupil — money Malan used to address achievement gaps.
“One of the best uses of Title I funds is for quality teachers and staff to support students that need intervention or academic services, whether it’s English-language instruction or mathematics or any other subject,” he said. Title I also funds enrichment programs that take place outside of the school day, “all those things that help our students to be successful — early childhood intervention, after school, summer school, all that — and additional technology or devices and materials to support students who have academic needs.”
Not all poor pupils count equally
The goal of Title I may be to produce the most good for the most needy students, but the problem, according to a recent U.S. News & World Report investigation, is that Title I doesn’t treat all needy school districts the same. Compare Barstow with another California school district — San Jose Unified, in the heart of affluent Silicon Valley, where salaries and home prices far surpass the statewide average. Only about one in seven students (13.9 percent) in this district is eligible for Title I funds. Yet, San Jose received more than $5.6 million in federal assistance last year. Barstow, with a poverty rate that’s more than twice as high, receives a per-pupil allocation that’s nearly identical to San Jose’s $988.
“[Barstow is] a massively more needy student population, and they’re actually receiving the same in Title I funding per student,” said Catherine Brown, vice president for education policy at the Center for American Progress (CAP), a progressive policy and advocacy organization in Washington, District of Columbia.
Why would two districts with very different rates of child poverty receive the same allocation per eligible pupil? Because Title I, a $14.5 billion federal program (fiscal year 2014), has wound up with a financing model that is almost impossibly complex. “What you have is a big jumble of four different formulas that all intersect to make for a very opaque set of incentives for district and state leaders,” Brown said.
The U.S. Education Department makes Title I awards to states based on Census Bureau estimates on the number of children in low-income families. School districts use their own measures of poverty, such as school lunch data, to decide how their funds will be distributed. But within a school, poverty doesn’t determine who gets services; that’s determined by academic need. To add to the complexity, some of the Title I formulas are weighted by high numbers or high percentages of poor students.
“The link between a district’s poverty rate and how much Title I it gets per poor child is far from straightforward, with many high-poverty districts getting fewer Title I funds per poor student than lower-poverty districts,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University who recently completed an analysis of the program for The Hamilton Project, part of the Brookings Institution in Washington.
During the December reauthorization of the Elementary & Secondary Education Act, policy advocates argued for reforms to Title I funding. Members of Congress called for a study of the formula, saying even they don’t understand it, “but changing the formulas in any meaningful way is a huge political challenge,” said Gordon, “because redirecting funds to poorer places means that other places take a very visible hit.”
The bulk of Title I funds, nearly 60 percent, goes to districts with a poverty rate of at least 25 percent, according to a U.S. Department of Education spokesperson. But that still leaves billions of dollars in federal funds allocated to middle-class or even wealthy districts. Take, for instance, another California school district — Los Alamitos Unified — in the upscale beach towns of wealthy Orange County.
Los Alamitos is roughly the same size as Barstow but with very different demographics. The district is majority white; the child poverty rate is under 8 percent; and the local property tax base is robust. Here, every eligible pupil in the Los Alamitos district receives a Title I allocation of $722, for a total federal allocation of $400,000. And that’s only fair, said Los Alamitos Superintendent Sherry Kropp. “The real issue is poor students, and whether you have 10 or 10,000, those students have to be served,” said Kropp.
Los Alamitos spends its Title I allocation primarily on reading instruction, and the supplies and personnel to support enrichment programs. And although Kropp says, “we are certainly not considered high poverty … Every kid deserves that extra support who meets the criteria, regardless of whether they’re in a high- or low-poverty district.”
There are big disparities in Title I funding among school districts within the same state, but even bigger disparities exist between states, based on population, according to CAP’s Brown. Because of a provision in federal law called the “small state minimum,” small populations are guaranteed a minimum amount of Title I funding. “What results is a group of states like New Hampshire and Wyoming that are not well-populated wind up with very large per pupil allocations,” Brown said.
Based on this formula, poor children living in Rhode Island receive much more from Title I on a per pupil basis than poor students in more populous states. The small state minimum helps rural states such as New Mexico that may need help attracting teachers, Brown said. It also helps wealthier states like Delaware, which has a small population but also a low rate of poverty.
Title I historically has rewarded states that have invested heavily in education as an incentive to other states to step up their own education funding. What sounds good in theory produces an unintended result, Brown says. “Of course, on the one hand it’s a rational policy incentive; on the other hand, it rewards states like Massachusetts or New York, which are more affluent to begin with and are investing more in education.” States like Mississippi or Alabama, which are poorer states and cannot afford to invest in education at the same level, wind up doubly hurt, according to Brown.
There are also Title I disparities between different-sized cities within the same state.
In the Title I number-weighting formula, student headcounts aren’t always straightforward. “When you cross certain thresholds, your kids start becoming worth more than just one [person]; they start counting as two or three or even six kids,” said William Sonnenberg, a statistician with the National Center for Education Statistics, which is working on an analysis of Title I formulas mandated by Congress for next year.
Number weighting helps explain how Oakland, California, a medium-sized city in the San Francisco Bay Area, could receive $17.5 million in Title I funding last year: it has 15,000 eligible pupils. “Oakland is being compensated for that enormous number,” Sonnenberg said.
Georgetown’s Gordon explains it this way: “By having a large number of poor children, even if it’s a relatively low rate, you get higher weights attached to each poor child, so you’re getting more dollars. Basically, just being bigger helps you.”
That’s because growing up in an area with a concentration of poverty has even more dire consequences for children, said Michael Dannenberg, director of strategic initiatives for policy at Education Reform Now, in Washington. “If you are a poor kid living in a poor area you are doubly disadvantaged,” he said.
People may not like some of the complexity or conflicting rewards of Title I, “but the formula is doing what’s it’s supposed to do: Reward school districts that have high percentage poverty but also districts that have high numbers of poverty,” Sonnenberg said.
According to reformers, there are hard tradeoffs that get made when moderately needy schools compete against extremely needy schools. Maybe, say some, the solution is more funding overall. “The answer lies in putting a lot more into the formula,” according to Brown. “Title I doesn’t leverage state and local dollars to devote more to their neediest schools, and that’s one of the most important changes we can make.” But that doesn’t mean she expects big changes any time soon. “Funding formulas tend to be the most politically challenging matters that lawmakers face,” she said.
Meanwhile, high-poverty school districts such as California’s Barstow Unified are back at it, geared up to help their neediest students. Whether it’s in the traditional school day, after-school or early-education programs, Superintendent Malan describes Title I as “the cherry on top” that gives kids who are struggling “the step up” they may need to achieve academic success. “It means enrichment activities, interventions and supports that we wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise. We had summer school this year because of Title I,” he said.
OST Has a Stake in the Title I Debate
Title I is designed as a federal financial boost for students who are struggling academically, and that means out-of-school providers are watching the debate over whether funding formulas should be changed. Jodi Grant, executive director of the Afterschool Alliance, said there are reasons why Title I is important to afterschool. First, “we’re serving the same kids and communities.”
In addition, Title I resources can be used to supplement the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program (21st CCLC) funding stream that is critical to OST providers. “I’ve been in programs where Title I is used to create a computer lab in a school, and the after-school program has access to it,” Grant said. “In Pittsburg they use Title I for summer programming. In Cincinnati a lot of the after-school providers are Ys, and they blend it with Title I.”
Title I funds are designed to “supplement not supplant” what goes on during the traditional school day, which means a crossover for the enrichment goals of after-school providers. “In some places, it’s things like 3-D printers or maybe science labs that could provide supplies through Title I and then be used by after-school providers,” Grant said.
Community-based organizations can apply directly for 21st CCLC funding but not for Title I grants, which flow from the Department of Education through the state to school districts. For that reason, said Grant, “it’s absolutely essential for OST providers to be constantly building and strengthening relationships with school districts.”