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How Would the House NCLB Rewrite Affect Funding for Minority Students?

UPDATED

Districts serving high concentrations of minority students could stand to lose more than $3 billion in federal funding over six years if a bill to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act that's slated to pass the House of Representatives this week becomes law, according to an Obama administration report. The report considers how the bill could impact funding in 32 of the largest school districts with high concentrations of minority students.

There are some big issues with this analysis, though—more on that below, and the department's response.

First the White House numbers: The report, released Tuesday, warns of cuts of more than $1.3 billion over 6 years to more than ten districts that serve high concentrations of African-American students. For instance, the Philadelphia City school system, which is 55 percent black, could lose $412 million.

In addition, more than 20 districts that serve high concentrations of Hispanic children could lose more than $1.8 billion. As an example, Houston Independent School District, which is 62 percent Hispanic, could lose up to $204 million, the report says.

But, these top-line estimates, while powerful, are essentially a worst-case scenario that's highly unlikely to play out in real life, especially if you consider them over six years. There are a number of reasons why.

The report, which pivots off of a White House analysis released earlier this month, takes into consideration language in the House GOP bill that would:

A) Authorize flat funding: The White House got some of its estimates by subtracting the amount of money for K-12 programs authorized under the House bill from the amount proposed in the president's recent fiscal year 2016 budget, which calls for big increases to education funding, including $1 billion in additional money for Title I. And beyond that, the administration is also assuming a roughly 2 percent increase in funding over the next five years.  By contrast, the House bill would seek to lock in K-12 federal funding at fiscal year 2012 levels (same as the 2012-13 school year). 

The thing is, it's really unlikely that the president's budget proposal would become law as he introduced it anyway, NCLB renewal or no, given the Republican Congress. And authorizations are suggested spending levels anyway, Congress doesn't have to adhere to them (and often doesn't.) 

B) Allow for Title I portability: The House bill would allow Title I money—which districts use to help districts educate disadvantaged students—follow those students to the public school of their choice, if states give their approval. That could mean that Title I dollars would flow to areas with lower concentrations of poverty, since most parents would likely elect to move their children from really poor schools to more affluent schools, experts say.  

But, in making projections, the administration appears to assume that all states would decide to jump on the Title I portability offer.

And that's really unlikely, according to some analysts. In fact, Michael Griffith, a senior analyst with the Education Commission of the States, bets that only a couple of die-hard fans of school choice (think Arizona or Florida) would take the feds up on Title I portability if it were to become law, at least initially. In particular, it's hard to imagine that blue states like Maryland, Pennsylvania, or California would take advantage of new flexibility to expand school choice. That didn't stop the administration from including districts in those states in its analysis, including Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan responded to these critiques in a phone call with reporters Tuesday, saying it makes sense to compare the Republican bill with the president's budget because they present contrasting visions of where the department wants to go on education spending, compared to the GOP Congress. And he said there's no way to know for sure and certain how many—or which—states will decide to opt for Title I portability. 

"We have no idea what states would or would not do," he said. "Why would you open your door to something" like this? And, he added, "I cannot figure out what the benefits [of the policy] are to the most disadvantaged children. There is no upside in any of this."  

Portability Politics

So if the administration's projections could turn out to be largely inflated estimates, why are officials making such a huge deal out of them? After all, this is the second time the administration has tried to draw reporters' attention to its analysis, first unveiled earlier this month. (This time there's a new twist on the numbers, looking at districts with high concentrations of minority students.)

For one thing, funding is an area where the administration is on the same page as education organizations representing administrators, superintendents, and teachers. A lot of these organizations are big fans of a smaller federal footprint on accountability, which the House bill would deliver. But they do not like stagnant K-12 funding or Title I portability one bit.

Drawing attention to these issues is a smart way to highlight the differences between much of the education community and congressional Republicans. That's good politics, even if the report itself makes some assumptions that don't seem firmly grounded in what's likely to actually happen, should the House bill become law.

It's worth noting, though, that there are plenty of other arguments against Title I portability, in particular. For one thing, it could be tough to structure the program in a way that gives parents time to make decisions while also giving districts time to plan their budgets.

The language "could create a huge chaotic meltdown" in districts, said Anne Hyslop, a senior policy analyst at Bellwether Education Partners, a Washington consulting organization. 

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