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Obama Administration Draws Line in Sand: Stands Up for Children Raised in Poverty

September 3, 2016

Earlier this week the Washington Post writer Emma Brown reported that the Department of Education’s rules for spending ESSA funds require that district use their federal dollars to supplement and not supplant local and state dollars. This is a big deal, because it illustrates that the Obama administration is taking a stand in support of directing money to the neediest children in the neediest schools, as described in these paragraphs:

“For far too long the students who need help the most have gotten the least,” Education Secretary John B. King Jr. said. “No single measure will erase generations of resource inequities and there is still much more work to do. … But today’s announcement is a concrete step toward closing these gaps.”

At issue is the portion of the Every Student Succeeds Act that requires school districts to use Title I dollars in addition to — not instead of — state and local money. The outlines of that provision — known as “supplement not supplant” — has been in place for decades, and is meant to ensure that districts don’t underfund schools in poor neighborhoods and then use federal aid to make up the difference.

Many school districts are living up to the law, but thousands of high-poverty schools are being shortchanged, receiving less state and local money per pupil than more affluent schools within the same district, according to the Obama administration.

As one who led two large school districts (i.e. over 10,000 students) I can see that the last phrase in the second paragraph might be problematic since, in many instances, transfer provisions in negotiated agreements often result in experienced teachers migrating from schools serving low income students to schools serving affluent students. This results in a situation where the student-teacher ratios are equal but the cost-per-student is higher in the affluent school because the median salaries of teachers are higher. Moreover, adding more teachers to the schools serving lower income students is often an impossibility because of limitations in the facilities. These are administrative and political complications that effect adults, though. And writing the rules to mitigate these concerns often results in loopholes that perpetuate the disparities within districts and between districts.

In the end, the supplement-versus-supplant issue comes down to one issue that states and local districts do NOT want to tackle: the need to spend more money on schools:

The Education Department said that the proposed rule would ensure an additional $2 billion in spending in high-poverty Title I schools. But a key question is where those billions would come from: Would state and local taxpayers make new investments? Or would money — and faculty — be shifted from more affluent schools?

The agency said it would like to see districts comply not by forcing teacher transfers or by shifting resources but by devoting more money overall to education. That could be a difficult sell in states and districts where education funding has yet to recover from the hit it took during the housing crash and subsequent recession, and where many schools are struggling with tight budgets.

In earlier posts I’ve advocated that the federal government deny any money to any state that is currently in litigation over inequitable funding to provide leverage to those who filed the suits on behalf of poor and disadvantaged students. While I realize that such a proposal would be unlikely to pass, I DO think it would compel parents, taxpayers, and voters to focus on the root cause of disparate test scores— which is the disparate funding provided to children from the time they are born until they graduate from high school. Until we provide all children with basic needs— food, clothing and shelter— we should stop mouthing platitudes about “equal opportunities”. The Obama administration is doing the right thing by standing its ground on this issue.

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