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Lawmakers Spar Over Federal Overreach, Equity in House ESSA Funding Hearing


Washington, D.C.

Republican lawmakers and local K-12 officials sharply criticized a U.S. Department of Education regulatory proposal they said would improperly meddle in school funding decisions, while Democratic representatives defended it as promoting greater equity for poor students, during a House K-12 subcommittee hearing Wednesday. 

The proposed rules that Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. released last month concern how schools must show they are using federal funds to supplement other education funding, and not using it to fill gaps left by state and local budget decisions. It's a controversial plan—and one that could end up creating a legal battle between Congress and the Education Department.

Need a quick refresher on this funding issue? The rules King's department proposed would allow districts to show federal funds are supplementing their budgets by using:

  • a weighted student formula that addresses disadvantaged students or those with special needs
  • a formula based on a district-wide average of personnel and non-personnel spending
  • a state-developed and federally peer-reviewed method
  • As a fourth "safe harbor" option, a district could decide to create greater equity for (but not strictly equalize) per-pupil spending between rich and poor schools

Here's what supporters basically said: The proposed rules for the Every Student Succeeds Act would give local schools flexibility while also tackling big and unfair spending gaps between schools with large shares of low-income students and their wealthier counterparts.

Here's what detractors basically said: The department's overreaching proposal would trip-up school districts' operations, subvert ESSA's plain language and congressional intent, and could actually hurt disadvantaged students in the end.

Equity as Intent

Speaking in support of the department's general approach, Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, asked why there was such controversy around ensuring that poor students get their "fair share" of funding. Fudge said this issue is particularly crucial at a time when schools are increasingly segregated and poor students are in fact being shortchanged. And, in addressing questions about the intent of ESSA, Fudge said, "I thought the intent of the law was equity."

The department's proposal provides sufficient flexibility for districts, while also addressing educational inequity that results in 5,700 schools nationwide getting, on average, $440,000 less annually than their wealthier counterparts within the same districts, said Scott Sargrad, the managing director of K-12 education policy at the Center for American Progress. Students of color in particular are hurt by these disparities, he noted.

"I want to step back and note that we are not considering dry academic questions," Sargrad told the subcommittee in prepared remarks. "Even as we sit here today, too many low-income students across the country sit in crumbling schools without access to the experienced and effective teachers, rigorous courses, and wraparound services that they need to have a chance at success."

Under questioning from Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., Sargrad also said districts could show compliance with the supplemental-money rule in a number of ways, from hiring new guidance counselors to extending the school day, that did not involve the forced transfer of teachers, a particularly controversial move that Sargrad himself said is a bad idea.

Noting that schools consisting nearly entirely of students of color receive on average $700 per student less than their counterparts, Bonamici said, "There's a disparity that needs to be addressed."

'Wreak Havoc'

But GOP lawmakers and school officials testifying sharply criticized the plan. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn. and the full committee chairman, said the department's plan was an attempt to change a part of the law that Congress opted not to revise—the part of the law that requires comparable spending between low- and high-poverty schools but allows districts to exclude actual teacher salaries from showing compliance.

ESSA's language says districts have to show their schools get the same state and local money they would otherwise receive without federal aid, such as Title I, which is earmarked for disadvantaged students, Kline said. That's quite different, he added, from what the department is proposing.

"The administration is not allowed to rewrite law," Kline said, adding he feared the department's proposal, if implemented, would "wreak havoc in communities across the country."

Through tax increases for K-12 and an increased focus on needy students like English-language learners, Nevada is trying to create a more equitable educational environment for students, said Steve Canavero, the state chief. But he told the subcommittee that the proposed ESSA rule would disrupt such efforts, and concentrate much more control in the hands of central office administrators.

"This will affect everything from school hiring and purchasing to curriculum," he said.

And the department's plan creates a huge amount of uncertainty for a state like Oklahoma that has a very big teacher shortage, said Ryan Owens, the executive director of the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration.

He asked lawmakers, "How will districts using long-term substitute teachers, emergency certified teachers, or larger class sizes satisfy a requirement for equalized spending when the needed resource, teachers, do not exist?" 

A third witness who did not support the rule, Georgetown University Associate Professor Nora Gordon, noted that a 2012 report from two think tanks, the left-leaning CAP (Sargrad's think tank) and the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, proposed creating a test through which districts would have to show they allocate state and local money irrespective of their Title I aid. That's a workable test for federal money that was incorporated into ESSA, she said, unlike what the department has proposed.

Expanding on Kline's point about the "havoc" the plan would create, Gordon said it would require districts to shuffle money and people around to come into compliance with a federal requirement, while largely ignoring the actual needs of students: "Without knowing the choices districts will make to comply with this rule, it is impossible to estimate the benefits of the proposed rule."

Contentious Backdrop

The Education Department released its proposed rules for the supplemental-money rule last month. In those rules, the department backed off an earlier trial balloon to require per-pupil state and local spending in Title I schools (those with high shares of poor students) to be at least equal to the average such spending in non-Title I schools. But the department is still pushing hard to make resources within districts more equitable. In a statement accompanying his proposal, for example, King said the draft rules could result in up to $2 billion in additional state and local money for poor students.

ESSA_button.jpgGroups like the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights have lauded the proposal, and that group's president, Wade Henderson, joined King on a conference call with reporters when it was released.

But groups like the Council of Chief State School Officers and AASA, the School Superintendents Association, have said the department's idea is misguided, and that it could actually end up hurting poor students.

And congressional Republicans have said for months that the department is way out of bounds. For example, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. and the Senate education committee chairman, has stated he will not allow the department's proposal to stay on the books if it is finalized. That hard-line position against the department's plan is part of what led to the House hearing Wednesday.

The public comment period on the proposed ESSA funding rule is open until Nov. 7.

Photo: U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind. and the chairman of the House subcommittee for K-12 education, at a Sept. 21 hearing on proposed spending rules for the Every Student Succeeds Act. (Andrew Ujifusa/Education Week)

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