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GOP Proposes Unprecedented Flexibility in Ed. Spending

States and districts would get unprecedented leeway to move around federal money under the latest in a series of bills to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. But the measure is already being decried by a top Democrat as a "backdoor" way to dismantle the U.S. Department of Education and as an attack on students' civil rights.

The bill, introduced today by Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, envisions a very different role for the federal government when it comes to telling states and districts how to spend their money.

Instead of directing states and districts to spend a certain amount on a particular population—say, English-language learners—states and districts could move the dollars out of that program and spend them on a wide range of activities authorized under the ESEA (whose current version is No Child Left Behind).

That would mean that districts could, for instance, move all of the money out of Title I grants for disadvantaged students, and spend it on, say, professional development under the Teacher Quality State Grants program. States and districts would still be required to fulfill reporting requirements for all programs, even if they move all of the money out of them. (For more specifics, check here and here.)

"It has been perplexing to [superintendents] and schools throughout the country that they cannot move money where they need it," Kline said today on Morning in America, former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett's radio program.

Kline had hoped to consider the funding bill earlier this year, but he pulled it back, in part to garner support from Democrats.

That support doesn't look likely now. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House education committee, said the measure is "an offensive, direct attack on civil rights" that is sure to weaken efforts to ensure that disadvantaged and minority kids get access to educational opportunities.

"This back-door attempt at fulfilling campaign promises to dismantle the federal role in education will turn back the clock on civil rights and especially harm low-income and minority students," Miller said.

"Pretending like the federal government doesn't have a role won't change why it exists, it won't change the history of separate but equal, but it will endanger our schools, our economic stability, and our global competitiveness," he said. "The implications of a bill like this are disastrous for students, communities, schools and the future of this country."

Miller made it clear that Kline's bill would make bipartisanship tough going forward. "This bill makes it much more difficult to continue in a bipartisan manner to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act," he said.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is also not a fan of the bill. "This bill doesn't fix the real problems with NCLB and runs the risk of short changing students with the greatest needs," said Justin Hamilton, his spokesman. "We need a true bipartisan reform bill for the President to sign by the start of the school year. Time is running out, and kids can't wait."

Kline said, "There are people who just claim ownership to certain pieces [of the law] and won't let go."

What Advocates Say: The legislation has major fans and serious detractors.

Count the American Association of School Administrators among the major fans. The legislation "trusts that local educators are the best equipped" to make decisions about what will impact student achievement, said Noelle Ellerson, the AASA's assistant director of policy analysis and advocacy.

And she said that, since the measure would call for states and districts to continue to meet reporting requirements, it shouldn't be viewed as backsliding on accountability for the funds.
But civil rights advocates are already warning of the legislation's potential impact on disadvantaged and minority children.(Check out AASA's letter of support here.)

"This kind of flexibility isn't what our schools need to raise achievement and close gaps. ... We don't see how anything good comes out of this," said Kate Tromble, the director of legislative affairs for the Education Trust, an advocacy organization in Washington that works on behalf of low-income and minority students.

The bill "undoes the core federal role in public education," a key part of which is ensuring that long-overlooked populations got their fair share of resources and attention, she said. Allowing states and districts to move money out of those dedicated funds could mean those students will be swept under the rug again, she said.

The Council of the Great City Schools, which represents urban districts, is also unhappy with the bill.

The council "will oppose the new ESEA Funding Flexibility bill and any bill that undermines the integrity of the Title I program for disadvantaged students and the Title III program for students with limited English proficiency," Michael Casserly, the council's executive director, said in a statement circulated by Miller's staff.

The National Education Association also opposes the measure. "We support flexibility, we just don't think you need to threaten childrens' civil rights in order to provide it," said Mary Kusler, the union's manager of federal advocacy.

So will this pass? It has a good chance in the GOP-controlled House. But, given the early reaction from Miller and Duncan, it seems the bill would struggle to gain support from Democrats in the Senate—and President Barack Obama.

More mechanics: It's important to note that one of the pots of funding districts could move money to is Title V, which is called Innovative Programs. That's a mega-flexible funding stream. Districts can use the money for pretty much anything under the sun, from charter schools to technology to class size reduction to pre-kindergarten and adult education classes. Check out the whole list here (starting on page 11).

Under the bill, states would be allowed to shift money out of the following programs: School Improvement Grants (state administration); Title I administrative funds; Migrant Education; Neglect and Delinquent programs; Teacher Quality State Grants; English Language Acquisition Grants; 21st Century Community Learning Centers; and the Education Jobs Fund.

And school districts could transfer funds from Title I grants for disadvantaged kids; Migrant Education; Neglected and Delinquent programs; Teacher Quality State Grants; English Language Acquisition Grants; Indian Education; and the Education Jobs Fund.

So where could the money go? It could be funneled to the School Improvement Grant program; Title I grants to districts; Reading First; Migrant Education; Neglect and Delinquent Programs; Teacher Quality State Grants; Math and Science Partnerships; English Language Acquisition Grants; 21 Century Community Learning Centers; Innovative Programs; Grants for State Assessments; Rural Education; Indian Education; and services for early intervention under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Under the measure, districts would have to let states know ahead of time how they planned to use the funds, and states would have to keep the Department of Education in the loop on their spending plans. But there wouldn't be any sort of application or approval process.

More politics and policy: Democrats counter that districts never asked for flexibility of this kind, and largely don't take advantage of the flexibility they're already allowed. Democrats on the education committee have put out a report on the issue.

In a nutshell, the report says that states and districts can move already 50 percent of funding out of certain programs, including Teacher Quality State Grants, but very few do. And committee Democrats say that the bill doesn't address some of the flexibility that districts have asked for, including not having to set aside part of their Title I funding for school choice and tutoring.

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