Title I: Rich School Districts Get Millions Meant for Poor Kids
June 1, 2016
By: Lauren Camera and Lindsey Cook
NOTTOWAY, Va. — If you follow the railroad tracks about an hour southwest of Richmond, beyond rolling green fields dotted with yellow buds of spring, down wide and winding country roads, past faded barns, some overgrown with climbing weeds and others slumping towards earth, you’ll find the Nottoway County School Board Office.
The central office oversees the school district’s 2,200 students, more than 30 percent of whom live in poverty. For a community with such an astounding concentration of poor children, it’s done a good job preparing students academically – especially considering one in four adults here don’t have a high school diploma, and only 12 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
In fact, the wood-paneled walls outside Superintendent Daniel Grounard’s office are decorated with awards from the Virginia Board of Education and others touting its ability to overcome those challenging circumstances.
Such accolades, however, have been hard to come by for Nottoway since the Great Recession, the economic collapse from which it’s barely recovered despite the resurgence in many parts of the state and across the country as a whole.
The district has been hemorrhaging teachers it hasn’t been able to replace, in part because of poor health benefits. Nearly all those who have stayed haven’t seen a pay raise in the last six years, even if their contracts stipulated one. It can only afford to employ one math and one reading coach, as well as one school nurse, all of whom float among the district’s seven schools throughout the week.
“We need help,” Grounard says.
But with property taxes at an all-time low, and many young families fleeing the district if they can afford to do so, that help is not coming from local revenue. Indeed, Nottoway gets less local funding than nearly all other school districts in Virginia.
The federal government operates a $14.5 billion program aimed at addressing this exact type of education funding inequity. It’s called Title I and it’s the pillar of the federal K-12 law known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
Its purpose is to financially bolster school districts with large proportions of poor children, like Nottoway, so they have access to the same types of learning opportunities as wealthier children – children who often reside in more affluent districts and whose schools benefit from higher property taxes, among many other supports.
Nottoway receives about $775,000 annually from the federal program. And while it’s a welcome financial boost, every cent of it goes toward teacher salaries. There is nothing left over for professional development, curriculum support, or reading and math enrichment programs.
Meanwhile, Fairfax County, a leafy green suburb outside the nation’s capital that’s home to well-heeled government workers who helped it become the first county in the U.S. to reach a median household income of six figures, rakes in a whopping $20 million in Title I funding.
Fairfax is home to six of the top 10 high schools in Virginia, according to the U.S. News & World Report Best High Schools rankings and has a childhood poverty rate of just 8 percent.
“What bothers me about this is the rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” Grounard says. “It’s not the way it should be.”
This disparity is no fluke. Montgomery County Schools in Maryland, another elite suburb outside Washington, get nearly $26 million, despite a child poverty rate of 8.4 percent.
In fact, 20 percent of all Title I money for poor students – $2.6 billion – ends up in school districts with a higher proportion of wealthy families.
“It’s not fair,” Grounard says. “It’s appalling.”
The Backbone of the Federal Education Law
Education has historically been a state and local district responsibility, and that goes for education funding as well.
While it varies from state to state, the lion’s share of support for schools – about 90 percent or $540 billion – is split between state and local governments. The federal government covers the rest, around 10 percent or $61 billion.
Like many of the laws passed during the height of the civil rights movement, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act sought to right decades of injustices largely rooted in unequal access to resources.
“As a son of a tenant farmer, I know that education is the only valid passport from poverty,” said President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, when he signed the law on the lawn in front of the one-room schoolhouse where he grew up in rural Texas.
“By passing this bill,” he continued, “we bridge the gap between helplessness and hope for more than 5 million educationally deprived children.”
Title I, the largest federal K-12 program, was how Johnson planned to do that. And since children from poor families often enter schools with a host of more-costly educational needs – from less exposure to reading and math to social, emotional and nutritional problems – it’s important the limited federal dollars are funneled to those who need them most, he reasoned.
How is it then that a school district like Nottoway, with a child poverty rate of 30 percent, receives so much less in federal support than Fairfax, one of the wealthiest districts in the country?
The answer lies in a complicated and outdated formula that’s used to distribute the Title I money – a formula that’s resulted in a series of significant funding discrepancies that can shortchange school districts with high concentrations of poverty, and benefit larger districts and big urban areas instead of poorer, rural districts and small cities.
“The places that are less poor are getting more money per poor kid,” says Nora Gordon, an associate professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University who recently conducted an analysis of the Title I program for The Hamilton Project. “This is what happens when you have four different formulas that are very opaque and interact in different ways. You can have a lot of things in the law that seem like a good idea, but the net result is not a progressive one.”
In fact, the net result often means that in addition to the formula overlooking poor rural school districts, like Nottoway, it also shortchanges smaller high-poverty urban districts, like Flint, Michigan, which similarly faces challenges that affluent districts often don’t, such as dated facilities and teacher shortages.
Discrepancies are also visible in the amount of Title I money districts receive per poor child.
Virginia’s Mecklenburg County, for example, with a child poverty rate of 30 percent, receives $1,000 per poor student through Title I – the same amount as poor students in York County, where the child poverty rate is less than 6 percent.
To be sure, when policymakers crafted the current formula in 2001 as part of the No Child Left Behind Act, they did so intending to correct a formula that was directing even fewer dollars to concentrations of poor students than it does today – one that allowed Claiborne Parish in Louisiana, with a child poverty rate of 36 percent, to infamously use its Title Ifunds to build not one, but two Olympic-sized swimming pools for students.
But the formula has proven a sort of intractable beast – one that politicians and policymakers have had little success altering, despite its glaring shortcomings.
“In the context of deeply inadequate funding overall, formula changes are always seen as a zero sum game,” says Michael Dannenberg, director of strategic initiatives for policy at Education Reform Now. “More money for one district or state is coming at the expense of needy children in someone else’s district or state.”
“Politically it’s very hard,” he says. “It’s not impossible, but it’s very hard.”
Dannenberg would know. He first tried – and failed – to change the formula while working for former Sen. Clairborne Pell of Rhode Island. Years later, as a senior policy adviser for Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, Dannenberg was part of the push to update the formula as part of No Child Left Behind. That version is still used today.
“To be clear, the wealthiest school districts are getting more per Title I child than high poverty school districts,” he says. “But the effort to improve targeting of Title I funding [to concentrations of poor students] was realized in part as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act. We had a degree of success, but not nearly as much as one would hope.”
Still, the changes weren’t insignificant.
For example, from 2002, when the law went into effect, through 2010, data show that roughly $6 billion in Title I funding was directed to high-poverty school districts that otherwise wouldn’t have been under the old formula, according to data from the Education Department.
“That’s a lot of bake sales,” says Dannenberg.
A Formulaic Failure?
The formula, which is really four separate formulas rolled into one, is intended to send more money to poor districts. But it leaves much to be desired, many education policy experts say, and one of its biggest criticisms is that it spreads dollars too thin.
According to the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think-tank based in Washington, 67 percent of schools get Title I funding despite the fact that only half have relatively high concentrations of poverty.
In Virginia alone, 134 districts get a slice of the Title I pie despite only 79 having higher than average levels of concentrated poverty. That’s because districts can tap the federal purse even if they serve only a handful of low-income students.
Falls Church City Public Schools, for example, another manicured Virginia district just outside of Washington, receives money for its 76 poor children even though the child-poverty rate there is less than 3 percent.
“Title I was never meant to be general education aid,” says Liz King, senior policy analyst and director of education policy at The Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “It was meant to be targeted to serve students in concentrations of poverty.”
The formula, however, places more weight on the number of poor students in a district than on the concentration of poor children in a district – one of the biggest reasons places like Fairfax, at 195,000 students big, gets as much money as it does.
In addition, the formula directs extra funding to states with small populations – an attempt to channel more money to rural states, like New Mexico, that often depend on federal support for things like attracting and retaining teachers to remote schools. But wealthy states like Delaware and Connecticut have small populations because they are geographically small, and therefore qualify for the additional funds despite not needing them.
Because of this fluke of the law, these small states with lower child poverty rates receive more Title I funds per poor child than poor states. Find them in the top left quadrant of the scatterplot. Meanwhile, many high poverty, rural states that don’t benefit from this rule or the prioritization of large districts. They appear in the bottom right quadrant of the scatterplot because they have a high child poverty rate, but receive less money per poor child.
Another oft-cited critique of the formula is that it rewards states and districts for investing more of their own dollars in education. While the goal is to incentivize states to spend more themselves, it tends to compound existing inequalities since wealthier states and districts tend to invest more heavily in education anyway.
Mississippi best illustrates this dilemma.
Especially in the state’s Delta region, where poverty rates soar up to 60 percent, local revenue rarely breaks $1 million, and in somes cases schools use their Title I money for bare necessities, like paying the electric and water bills.
“We don’t want to allow states to roll back their spending,” says Gordon. “But the reason why Mississippi is getting so little money per poor pupil is because they are spending very little money.”
Concentrations of Poverty
To be sure, poor students can be found in nearly every school.
According to Fairfax school records, the $20 million in Title I funding it receives in fiscal 2016 is being used for approximately 30,000 students –16,000 of whom are poor and attend 44 of the district’s elementary schools.
Notably, not all Title I money goes to poor kids. If more than 40 percent of students at a school are poor, the money can be used for the entire school, meaning it also benefits students who aren’t poor.
One of those schools is Glen Forest Elementary, where more than 70 percent of students enrolled at the elementary school qualify for free or reduced-price lunch – the metric for how schools measure their poorest students – and more than 60 percent are in the process of learning English.
Collectively, the school’s 1,000 students hail from 47 countries and speak 39 different languages, primarily Spanish and Arabic.
“We also have one of the highest mobility rates,” says principal Cynthia Choate, who has headed the school for six years. “I have kids that come and go. We just registered children this week, so we’re constantly having to help teachers with how to get a child caught up, assess that child, and we’re constantly having to look at their specific needs.”
Such challenging circumstances often cripple schools, but Choate has the advantage of significant financial support from local revenue that allows her to hire enough teachers so that every two classrooms has a co-teacher. And students benefit from reading and math coaches, a unique curriculum that includes a STEM lab, and a litany of extra supports, such as food banks, garment drives and reading comprehension and acclimation services for parents.
The school itself is awarded about $400,000 in Title I money, which is used in part to employ four literacy coaches, thee math coaches, one instructional coach and two teachers who specialize in advanced academic curriculum. As a comparison, Nottoway employs one math and one reading coach that floats among all the schools in the district.
“My money goes to hiring of people,” says Choate. “The power in helping children is not through a program, but through excellent teachers and interaction with teachers. “So having that extra staffing helps me provide more assistance kids.”
Indeed, schools in wealthier communities have larger budgets and are better positioned to provide wraparound services and other important programs for low-income students without siphoning money from the limited Title I pot.
Fairfax, for example, receives nearly $1.9 billion annually from local taxes and can afford to spend $14,000 on every student from its local and state revenue. Nottoway, meanwhile, gets just $5.6 million from local revenue and is able to spend about $10,000 per child.
“When we’re talking about opportunities in schools and getting the best education, you’re better off as the only poor kid in a school where no one else is poor than you are as the only non-poor kid in a school with concentrated poverty,” says King. “It’s the concentrating of poverty that really gets in the way of kids having what they need.”
There are no backroom deals or lobbying friends in high places that leads to Fairfax getting a bigger slice of the pie than any other district. It simply comes down to the formula itself.
Moving Toward the Intent of the Law
The funding discrepancy is not a new revelation.
In more recent years, especially in the wake of the Great Recession, education policy experts concerned with equal distribution of resources, along with a handful of members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, have been trying to shine a light on the issue in hopes of altering it.
But legislative fixes, including the two proposed during the most recent overhaul of No Child Left Behind that the president signed into law in December, have proved an impossible task – largely because any change to the formula would have significant ramifications for big city school districts, which represent some of the most impoverished communities in the entire country.
“What their response would be is, ‘Oh what I see you’re after here is to take money away from our most intractable concentrations of poverty,'” says Marguerite Roza, research professor at Georgetown University and director of its Edunomics Lab. “And in some cases that is exactly what it would mean.”
Still, big-city schools may have resources that rural communities do not.
“If you’re in a small, more rural division and your poverty level is high, you don’t have a lot of means to address student need except through the Title I funding,” says Roland Coleman, the Title I coordinator for Nottoway schools. Like in many cash-strapped districts, he also wears the hats of federal programs administrator and school construction manager.