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ESSA’s “Plain English” vs. ESEA’s “Supplant vs. Supplement”

April 14, 2016

I started my career as a public school administrative intern in late 1973 in the business office of Springfield PA, an affluent suburb that borders Philadelphia after teaching math for two years in that city. I was surprised to discover that this school district’s budget included federal ESEA Title One funding because I believed that those funds were available only to districts that served the poorest children. The Assistant Superintendent for Business explained that the funds went to every district in the state that served any children being raised in poverty and even though there was a raft of paperwork that needed to be completed to prove that the funds were used for only those children it was worth it because the funds were significant enough to warrant it. The paperwork was required to make sure that the Federal dollar were not replacing local dollars: they needed to be used to provide those children who fell below the poverty line with additional resources. That is, the federal dollars could not supplant the local funds, they had to supplement them. He also explained the political reality implicit in Springfield receiving these funds: if every district didn’t get something the bill would never have passed because representatives of affluent districts needed some kind of funding to get the support of their constituencies.

Over the course of my 35 year career as a public school administrator I witnessed a relative decline in the Federal dollars earmarked for Title One to the point where the paperwork wasn’t worth it in some districts and eventually to the point where not very district or every school in districts serving poor children qualified for the supplemental funds. And as funds diminished and their distribution became more limited, legislators started to get push back from their States on the use of these funds with conservative legislators wanting the funding to be distributed to states with fewer strings attached.

And now we find ourselves in a situation where Congress passed ESSA, the latest iteration ESEA, that Senator Lamar Alexander claims gives States the opportunity to avoid the “supplement vs. supplant” language that has been in the law since it was written in 1965. In a Washington Post article by Emma Brown Alexander scolded newly appointed Secretary of Education John King for a memo he wrote clarifying the “supplant verse supplement” provisions in ESSA. Brown explains where the swords are crossed on this issue:

The law requires that districts use state and local dollars to provide comparable services to children who attend high-poverty schools and those who attend more affluent schools. But this “comparability” provision prohibits teacher compensation from being taken into account when determining whether districts are apportioning resources equitably.

That’s a loophole that allows for a big and hidden inequity, according to the Obama administration and many of its allies in the civil rights community. High-poverty schools tend to employ less-experienced teachers who earn lower salaries, so they often spend less on teachers than more affluent schools. But under the law, that gap goes undetected and unaddressed.

An amendment to close that loophole failed in the Senate during debate over the new education law.

The Education Department has not proposed changing the comparability provision directly. But it has proposed rules for a different section of the law — the “supplement not supplant” provision — which requires school districts to show that the federal dollars they receive for poor children are being used in addition to, and not instead of, state and local dollars.

Under the department’s proposal, school districts would have to show that state and local per-pupil funding in Title I schools is at least equal to the average per-pupil spending in non-Title I schools.

Alexander called it a backdoor way to force districts to include teacher salaries in their calculations of equitable spending — a policy that would not only directly contradict congressional intent, but also would force some teachers to transfer to different schools to equalize spending.

Interestingly, when ESEA was passed in 1965 the teacher salaries in urban districts, which were the first to unionize, were higher than the salaries in suburban schools. Indeed, as I recall the entering salary in Springfield in 1974 was below Philadelphia’s starting salary. In that era, teacher salary differentials would not be the factor they are today. Moreover, the notion that teacher salaries cannot be taken into account is wrongheaded. The goal of ESEA was to ensure equitable opportunities for all children in the country, and if highly compensated teachers are superior than low paid teachers– a premise inherent all merit-pay arguments– why shouldn’t teacher salaries be taken into account?

For years the conservative legislators in State houses and Congress have fought against redistribution of funds in any way shape or form and the allocation of any State of Federal money to districts serving poor children is seen as an erosion of local control or “Robin Hood”. So more and more school funding relies on local property taxes and that, in turn, has resulted in increasing inequities in school funding. Several months ago I wrote a prospective progressive education platform that offered the following idea:

  • Redirect all Federal funds to constitutionally underfunded districts: Over the past several decades all but five states have been sued over inequities in school funding. At the same time federal funds have been allocated to nearly every district in the country, even the most affluent. If elected I will take steps to see that in states where legislatures have not responded to court decisions calling for changes to the funding systems, all federal funds, including funds for handicapped children in affluent districts, will be redirected to those districts that state courts identify as being short-changed. If State legislatures fail to provide every child with an equal opportunity, the federal government has a responsibility to do so.

When ESSA was being debated, to the best of my knowledge no one in Congress raised the issue of the existing and persistent inequities in state funding. Nor has anyone suggested using federal funds to leverage equity in state funding for schools. It might not come to pass in this election cycle, but at some point the Federal government has to come to the aid of the poor children in this country or their lack of opportunity will widen the inequitable incomes even more in the future.

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