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Education Funding Flexibility Bill Clears House Committee

State and district officials would get broad leeway to shift federal dollars now aimed at particular populations—such as children in poverty—to other programs, under a measure approved today by the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

Republicans say the measure, part of a move to begin reauthorizing the ESEA piecemeal, would make it easier for districts and states to direct federal money to where it is needed most, which they see as a must in tough economic times.

Democrats argue that the Republicans are proposing too much leeway, and that it would allow districts and states to ignore the students most at risk—poor and minority kids—and trample on students' civil rights.

The measure, approved along party lines in the committee, would allow states and districts to take money out of an array of programs governed by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—including Title I grants for disadvantaged children—and direct the money to other purposes that they believe will do the most to improve student achievement.

For instance, districts could move all of the money out of Title I and direct it to teacher training. Districts could also transfer funding into a program aimed at innovation, which allows for a broad range of activities, from pre-kindergarten to adult education. School districts would still be subject to program reporting and accountability requirements. More background on the bill from the committee here and from Politics K-12 here.

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee and the sponsor of the bill, said the measure would help school districts and states direct dollars to the most effective programs.

"Time and time again, school officials have talked about the innovative reforms they would undertake if only they had the flexibility to target federal funds according to their priorities," he said.

But Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the committee, argued that the measure would create "a slush fund that would allow [districts and states] to ignore the needs of poor and minority students. ... This legislation would allow school districts to siphon away money specifically intended for these students and instead use that targeted funding for nearly any other activity" allowed under ESEA.

To assuage those concerns, Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., introduced an amendment to make clear that nothing in the legislation would conflict with existing civil rights or accountability requirements.

"Providing additional flexibility in the use of federal funds will not harm any subgroup of students," he argued. "Instead, we expect all students—regardless of race and ethnicity or socioeconomic status—will benefit from the increased opportunities this legislation provides school districts and state officials."

Thompson also contended that Democrats, in voting against the legislation, were failing to trust local education officials to make the best decisions for students in their districts.

Democrats were unconvinced.

Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., worried that federal funds meant for disadvantaged students and racial minorities would ultimately go to other students whose families are more likely to be able to put political pressure on local education leaders.

"Where do you think that money will go?" he asked. "If you leave it to the market, the privileged will get more. We have serious divisions in our society, we have serious inequalities in our society, it is incumbent on us to do everything we can to address those."

Democrats also countered that the bill does nothing to address the sort of flexibility that they say districts and states are really asking for, such as allowing districts to keep funds they must now set aside for school choice and tutoring.

Democrats introduced a series of amendments to exempt particular pots of money from the proposed flexibility. For instance, an amendment by Miller would have prohibited districts from moving money out of Title I and diverting it to other purposes. Other amendments sought to protect funding for English-language learners, neglected and delinquent children, migrant students, American Indians, and Alaska Native and Hawaiian children. All were defeated on party-line votes.

Holt introduced an amendment that would require school districts that access the funds to explain how they are serving particular populations. Kline said there was already a similar requirement in the legislation.

The flexibility bill was the third in a series of smaller, more targeted measures aimed at reauthorizing parts of the ESEA. (Check here for information on the first two bills—a bipartisan charter school bill and a GOP-backed measure to eliminate programs deemed unnecessary.)

It's an open question whether the next two pieces of legislation the committee has planned—one dealing with teachers and another with accountability—will garner bipartisan support. But if the reauthorization of the ESEA is going to happen this year, Republicans and Democrats will need to come to agreement sooner or later.

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