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Cash On and Off the Barrel: Money Matters in ESEA Reauthorization

As negotiations over reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act grind on, don't forget about the cash.

Possible shifts in accountability, including how testing requirements might change, have gotten a tremendous amount of attention. But there are plenty of changes to K-12 funding in both the House and Senate bills that could be especially tricky for staffers and lawmakers as they put the finishing touches on a deal.

So what are some of those funding issues that staff and lawmakers need to puzzle through as they push to finish ESEA by the year? 

Title I aid, the largest single federal grant program for public schools, is at the center of many of them, but it's not the only horse on the race track.

Get with the program ... or not: With all of those thorny policy issues threatening to poke ESEA negotiators in the eye, have you thought about slashing funding for Ready to Learn Television? What about the $1.15 billion for after-school and summer programs at the 21st Century Community Learning Centers?

That's right—the House and Senate bills deal with authorizations for various K-12 programs, or in plain English, whether or not they're officially a part of federal law. Being included in the bill doesn't mean that they'll be funded. But the House bill would cut or consolidate more than 20 education programs, removing their authorization. And once they lose authorization under ESEA, it will be a lot harder for those programs to come back to life.

"Once their champion is no longer in Congress, they often fade away," said Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding

That 21st Century Community Learning Centers program is the biggest single program that's cut in the House bill, although it survives in the Senate version. Behind many if not most of these programs is an intensive lobbying effort undertaken by advocates, large or small in number. The final compromise bill, if there is one, will show which ones are breathing easy and which are sighing with regret.

One program that has a decent shot of being authorized? The new state preschool grants that are backed by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who shepherded through the Senate bill along with GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee with bipartisan support. 

Title I Portability: Included in the House version of ESEA reauthorization, it's the only provision dealing with school choice that has any muscle. Basically, it would allow students to use Title I dollars at the public (but not private) schools of their choice. As discussed in a story about this proposed use of Title I dollars, even school choice advocates are lukewarm about the proposal because it keeps the dollars on a pretty short leash. 

Other groups, meanwhile, are very upset that it's in there at all, arguing among other things that it could hurt high-poverty schools.  

As Alyson wrote last month in an update on ESEA negotiations, the indications are that Title I portability probably won't make it into a final compromise, assuming there is one. (The White House really dislikes the idea.) But could negotiations produce some other way for lawmakers to promote choice?

Tweaking the formula: Then there are proposals to change how the Title I formula actually allocates dollars

The proposal from Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., that made it into the Senate bill would have the bigger impact. Just over two-thirds of states would see an increase in their Title I aid under Burr's plan, which would include new figures in cost estimates and disregard states' "effort" in their K-12 funding. But that sets up the dreaded "winners and losers" scenario that makes members of Congress think about hiding in the cloak room during votes—so the change won't take place until Title I spending goes up by about $2.5 billion. And who knows when that will happen.

Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., on the other hand, successfully got his idea into the House bill after years of advocacy. His plan would alter the formula to create more of a focus on districts with relatively higher concentrations of poverty, regardless of total enrollment, and less on large urban districts. This would help small and medium-sized cities in particular, as well as some rural districts. But advocates for big-city districts argue that it's absurd to think that students in those schools, faced with problems unique to urban poverty, should be shortchanged in ESEA.

Not-so-routine maintenance: School funding advocates and others say that maintenance of effort, which requires districts to largely maintain K-12 spending if they want to tap the same Title I funding they received the previous year, is a way to preserve ESEA as a piece of civil rights legislation.

Fans of maintenance of effort say among other salutary effects, it's a check on states and districts that might otherwise make big budget cuts.

But the House bill does away with maintenance of effort. Skeptics of the provision say it's outdated, especially in an environment where more states are giving parents more control over where they spend public dollars earmarked for public schools.

And that's not even taking into account the tricky political climate, particularly in the House. The recent budget deal might make ESEA's path a bit easier, and new Speaker of the House Paul Ryan might be willing to move a bill along. But there are still land mines everywhere.

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