Rural districts with lots of low-income families would see more Title I funding under a measure introduced today by U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa.
The Title I formula is highly complicated, but in a nutshell, the money is distributed to districts based on their size and concentration of poverty, among other factors. That means that, generally speaking, larger districts and big urban areas often come out ahead of poor, rural districts and small cities. For instance, Fairfax County, Va. (one of the richest counties in the nation) gets a disproportionate share of Title I dollars than some rural districts with higher concentrations of poverty.
The bill, called the All Children Are Equal Act (ACE), would seek to scale back the population part of the formula, so that Title I dollars are more focused on student poverty, not just population density.
"In rural Pennsylvania, we have a lot of experience stretching a buck, but the differences are staggering," Thompson at an event today highlighting the legislation.
The politics: Title I formula funding is the sort of issue that doesn't divide neatly along partisan lines. Thompson is the lead sponsor, but he also has the support of a number of Democrats, including Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., and Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas. The bill also has fans among Thompson's fellow House Education and Workforce Committee Republicans, including Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa.
There is no Senate sponsor yet, but in the past, U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., has expressed interest in this issue.
Thompson will almost certainly need the support of Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Educaiton and the Workforce Committee, if he's going to advance this bill. Sounds like Kline thinks that a discussion of the Title I funding formula is worth having. Here's a statement from his spokeswoman, Alexandra Sollberger:
Chairman Kline looks forward to working with Rep. Thompson to address inequities in the Title I formula that affect smaller and rural school districts' ability to meet the needs of disadvantaged children. As we continue our efforts to reform the elementary and secondary education law and ensure all children have access to a quality education, the committee is in the process of developing a proposal to further address Title I formula and accountability issues.
Putting a Face on the Problem: Carolyn Ross, the superintendent of the 4,500 student Churchill County School District in Nevada, is hoping the bill becomes a reality. Her district gets about $717,000 annually from Title I, but that would jump to $860,000 if the legislation becomes a reality. She'd use the extra money, she said, to hire staff and help her existing teachers learn how "work with students in poverty."
Who Supports This: The Rural School and Community Trust, for one; it has been asking for changes to the Title I formula practically forever.
The American Association of School Administrators, which is based in Arlington, Va., and represents a number of rural and suburban superintendents, is also for it. And it's got the seal of approval of the National Alliance of Black School Educators, among other groups.
The Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington, has also recommended changes it says would make the formula more equitable. Raegan Miller, CAP's associate director for education research, said the Thompson bill "pushes in the same direction" as the group's own proposal.
Chance of Passage: That's unclear right now. Thompson said he sees the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as the right vehicle for the measure. But a fight over the formula could also slow down the process of reauthorizing the NCLB law (which is already going at a snail's pace).
Without a major increase in Title I dollars (not a very likely prospect, given that Congress isn't in a spendy mood lately), legislation like Thompson's could create a fight that divides more along the lines of district character (urban and suburban vs. rural) than any partisan lines.
Thompson is trying to head off this kind of tension by including language in the bill that would phase in the new funding formula so that districts wouldn't have to adjust to less money all at once. Another option would be to have a pot of transitional funding, but Thompson is probably correct that a phase-in is a more politically viable option in this tight fiscal climate.
And even if a formula-funding fight would gum up the works on reauthorization for a bit, supporters of the bill think it's a debate worth having.
"If the formulas are changed, it happens at the very end" of discussion on a bill, said CAP's Miller. "There's a fight, it takes up some oxygen, [but] it doesn't mean that the formula fight derails" reauthorization.