During the Democratic presidential primary, I noticed something weird.
Bernie Sanders was obviously the leftist candidate, Biden the moderate, and Warren somewhere in between. The gap between Sanders and Biden was obvious in almost every way.
Except federal school funding.
Both Biden and Sanders said they’d triple Title 1 funds on their education platforms. Warren even said quadruple at one point.
As a socialist, my ears perked up. Biden saying the same thing as Sanders made me wonder if there’s a there there. Why would a moderate and a socialist both take this position? Is there something they’re not telling us about Title 1?
Specifically, what does ‘tripling’ Title 1 funding really mean?
If we believe the politicians’ rhetoric, it seems like Title 1 refers to the money that schools in poor districts get from the federal government. If your school gets X amount of Title 1 money then tripling it means they get 3X.
So, that’s what’ll happen right? Students in poverty get triple what they’re getting now?
From what I can tell, I don’t think so.
Let’s look at the law itself. ‘Title 1’ refers to the first big part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (there eight in total). This whole law and its eight titles was passed as part of the Great Society legislation in 1965. Every major education policy you’re familiar with is a re-issue of that law, with big changes (No Child Left Behind and ESSA being the most recent).
Title 1 is called “Improving The Academic Achievement Of The Disadvantaged.” Part A is called “Improving Basic Programs Operated by Local Educational Agencies.” When people talk about Title 1 they’re usually talking about this part (or at least making us think they’re talking about it).
But there are other parts.
Part B is called “Student Reading Skills Improvement Grants” for instance, which has multiple subparts on literacy. Part C is about education and immigration, Part D covers at-risk youth, Part E covers assessment, Part F is on school reform and on and on. There are around eight of them.
So we have to ask which parts are getting what money when it comes to Title 1. When Biden says triple Title 1, it could mean assessment and school reform are getting more than basic programs operated by local educational agencies.
But even if they specify Part A, there’s a whole apparatus there that distributes certain kinds of money to certain kinds of educational institutions under certain kinds of conditions.
Part A - How does it work?
Title 1, Part A is where the action is. This part “provides financial assistance to local educational agencies for children from low-income families to help ensure that all children meet challenging state academic standards.” (The National Center for Education Statistics has a helpful breakdown.)
At first, this looks great: federal government gives money to districts who need it, based on poverty measurement in the census. A 2015 study mandated by ESSA found that average per pupil Title 1, Part A funds were $1,227. The areas with the highest spending were urban and rural. More than 55,906 public schools across the country used the funds, which came out to $14.3 billion total in grants.
But wait. This differs by state. Turns out Idaho only spent $984 per pupil in their Title 1 allocations, whereas Vermont spent $2,950. The reason is that the money doesn’t just ‘go to districts’.
Federal Title I funds are allocated to districts but given to states who can reserve funds at the state level. Based on certain criteria, states are also able to make different allocations to their districts than the federal allocation.
Ah, so it’s really up to states. Allocation is different than giving. Dollars flow from the federal government to the states, who then distribute it. Will states distribute more Title 1 funds if they’re available?
This also means there are two key parts to the distribution: the federal side (how much to give to which states) and the state side (how much to give to which districts).
Four federal formulae
Title 1, Part A funding gets calculated through four algorithms, which then apportion four types of grants: basic, concentration, targeted, and education finance incentive grants (EFIG). Here’s a great history of these formulae.
The biggest of these grants are the basic ones, which just go by the census measure of poverty. The second two are based on number of poor students in a population and proportion of poor students, while the incentive grant is based on “measures of state effort and equity in funding public education.”
These formula make sure that the students who need the most, get the most. Which is largely what happens.
But hold on. If your district’s poverty level stays the same as it was, then you won’t get more money just because there’s more Title 1 funding available. On the federal side, there are specific ways this money gets calculated and distributed. Tripling the money available doesn’t necessarily mean tripling the money sent to any given district, unless the formulae change.
Actually, while targeted and EFIG grants have increased, basic and concentrated grants have been decreasing over the last twenty years.
If you wanted to change something on the federal side, you could mess with the way that EFIG is calculated. For instance, states with low effort and equity will have populations of poor students hurting more on average. So increasing the EFIG ratios (the amount you can get relative to your equity and effort) would make a difference for them.
SEAs vs. LEAs
There’s an important difference between state education agencies and local education agencies. Title 1 funds go to SEAs, who then determine whether LEAs like districts should get it. States have to submit plans to the federal government and districts have to submit plans as well. Everyone gets evaluated.
One of the worst parts of No Child Left Behind was the use of adequate yearly progress measurements to punish or reward schools. If a school made adequate yearly progress, great. If it didn’t, it could get sanctioned, restructured, or even closed.
There are AYP requirements in Title 1. Under the section on accountability it clearly says that SEAs can
include sanctions and rewards…the State will use to hold local educational agencies and public elementary schools and secondary schools accountable for student achievement and for ensuring that they make adequate yearly progress in accordance with the State's definition.
So tripling Title 1 funds is dependent on your district’s successful application to the state for the funds. And if you don’t make AYP there’s no guarantee from year to year whether you get money.
(There’s also a whole level of considerations within the district here: which principals get what money, what they do with it, etc. I can’t get that fine-grained in one post.)
Generally, just because there’s more money in the Title 1 budget doesn’t mean school districts will get more because they have to apply, get assessed, and demonstrate adequate yearly progress.
In Pennsylvania, school districts submit an application through the state’s department of education website. The state has a board that assesses each application.
The School District of Philadelphia got $17.5 million of Title 1, Part A funding in 2015. Keep in mind that the District’s budget is about $3.4 billion. It’s very very small. See the tiny green sliver in Philly’s budget chart? That’s Title 1.
Aptly, it only forms 1% of the 2019 budget.
This fits with national trends. Nationally, districts only get about 12% of funding from the federal government on average. The money that schools need doesn’t come from the federal government. And when it does, it’s highly constrained both by state decision-making and federal calculations. Remember, there was only $14.3 billion given out in grants that year.
Put another way, in 2018, districts spent around $11,000 on average per student. Title 1’s average per pupil is around a tenth of that. Paltry.
Those calculations, processes, and amounts won’t change because there’s more available in the federal pot unless the proportions and formulae change. And I don’t think anyone’s proposing that.
Basically, we have to be really careful what we’re talking about when we talk about Title 1. Of course this money is important, but it’s not nearly enough and focusing on it too much obfuscates the causes of school funding inequality and the tools available to us.
To be blunt about it: Title 1 is not achieving its stated purpose of providing federal support for the disadvantaged. (A 2018 report confirms this with trenchant analysis.) We need a rationalized distribution protocol for Title 1 spending, a new pot, rather than more money in the existing pot.