November 4, 2015
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Debate Over Federal Title I Ignores State Failures on School Funding

Washington, DC -- A congressional conference committee is currently deciding how to reconcile Senate and House bills reauthorizing the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Conspicuously absent from the debate is the critical need for federal policy to motivate the States to fairly fund their public schools.

Federal funding accounts for only about 10% of preK-12 funding. The states, through their finance systems, determine the lion's share of school funding, how it's distributed, and the mix of state and local revenue. Only a handful of states provide sufficient levels of funding and distribute that funding fairly to address student need, as documented in Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card.

Many states have been unable or unwilling to make their funding systems more equitable and adequate. It is crucial that federal education policies pressure states to improve funding fairness. Unfortunately for the nation's most vulnerable students, this pressing issue has been absent from the congressional debate on ESEA reauthorization.

Federal policymakers were recently provided a blueprint for taking leadership on school funding equity. In 2013, after two years of deliberations, the federally-appointed Equity and Excellence Commission issued its report, "For Each and Every Child: A Strategy for Education Equity and Excellence," calling for "bold action by the states, and the federal government, to redesign the funding of our nation's public schools...with sufficient resources that are distributed based on student need."

Federal Title I

The largest single federal funding stream for public schools is Title I, created in 1965. Originally, Title I sent additional funds to the highest poverty, most under-funded school districts in the nation. But Title I funding has been watered down in prior reauthorizations of ESEA.

This year, the Senate passed a version of the ESEA that would allocate more Title I funds to southern and western states at the expense of northern and eastern states. The House passed a version that would allocate Title I funds away from large cities in favor of smaller school districts. Neither version increases the amount of Title I funding available for allocation.

Under Title I, about $14.5 billion is provided annually to school districts, an amount that has remained flat for several years. While this funding accounts for only about 2.5% of total pre-K-12 school funding nationally, it is critically important for underfunded, high-need districts.

The ESEA reauthorization bill recently passed by the Senate changes Title I by taking away a built-in reward to states that exhibit high "effort" in school funding. "Effort" measures state spending on education relative to state fiscal capacity [See "effort" on pages 18-21 in the National Report Card.] If this change to Title I is accepted by the conference committee, states would lose an important incentive to adequately fund their schools. The House bill would reallocate Title I funding from large urban districts to smaller districts.

The conference committee could adopt either version or reject both and continue the current formula for distribution of Title I funds.

Maintaining the current Title I formula would only be a stop gap measure, and would not remedy the unacceptable status quo of school funding by the states. What's needed is a commitment from the President and leaders in Congress to take up the deep and longstanding inequities that inhibit educational progress in most states.

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Education Law Center Press Contact:

Molly A. Hunter

Education Justice, Director

973-624-1815, x 19

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