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A Simple Idea to Make a COVID-19 Bailout for Schools More Equitable

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If the typical method for distributing education aid for poor children doesn't work particularly well, what's a better way to help them in another coronavirus bailout? 

In a proposal published Monday, two academic say Congress should instead distribute money based on a mix of student population and child-poverty levels. In fact, lawmakers have already moved in this direction to a certain extent, according to Nora Gordon, an associate professor at Georgetown University, and Sarah Reber, an associate professor of public policy at UCLA, the proposal's authors. 

In the aid package signed by President Donald Trump in March, the roughly $13 billion made available for K-12 education is distributed to school districts based on how much money they get under Title I, the federal program that allocates billions of dollars every year to benefit children from low-income households. However, the aid money itself in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act is not legally Title I money.

CARES Act money can be used differently than regular Title I aid, a fact that creates confusion among schools, Gordon and Reber argue in the paper. Morevoer, they say, the Title I program itself—which relies on a complicated suite of four formulas to distribute money—treats poverty unevenly. For years, there have been criticisms that Title I is not particularly effective at providing more resources to disadvantaged students. 

So what's the solution from Gordon and Reber? They say a new coronavirus bailout should distribute aid using a weighted formula with two factors. One is the number of school-aged children in a state, and the other is the number of poor school-age children in each state. This approach would be equitable because it would "make the allocation of aid more progressive" than using Title I or other models. 

One of the justifications for their proposal is that schools in poorer states should get more aid from Congress than their counterparts in more affluent states. "Despite the greater resource needs of poor students, per-pupil school spending is already lower in states with higher child poverty rates," Gordon and Reber write, "All states are affected by the current crisis and the federal government needs to invest in all students. But higher-poverty states have less capacity to withstand these circumstances and need more federal support."

They use the chart below make their point that shows a lack of correlation between spending and child-poverty rates:

ChildPovertyStateSpending.JPG

If the idea sounds straightforward, that's in part because Gordon and Reber don't say how much weight each of the two factors in her proposed formula should get. The two associate professors say that's a decision for Congress to make. However, they note that changing the weight for child poverty in their proposal can shift the per-student aid allocation for Mississippi—the state with the highest child-poverty rate—by nearly $100. 

Capitol Hill should also decide how to define "school-aged," they note.

A separate CARES Act fund for K-12 and higher education controlled by governors relies on weighted figures of states' population of children ages 5-24 and states' population of poor children ages 5-17. That $3 billion CARES Act governor's fund, as it happens, uses a mix of population and people in poverty to distribute money to states. Gordon and Reber say that's the basic idea behind their proposal. 

In their paper, the two authors run an analysis of different aid formulas based on the neat round figure of $10 billion in funding, although they stress that Congress should allocate a lot more for schools. Whether schools will actually get additional federal aid—and if so, how much—remains to be seen. 

A House-passed bill that includes $58 billion in direct school district aid has already been rejected outright by Republicans in charge of the Senate. (Gordon and Reber say their proposal is similar to how K-12 money would be distributed in that legislation as well.) However, schools would also likely benefit from separate federal bailouts for state and local governments. 

In 2015, during negotiations over what became the Every Student Succeeds Act, lawmakers proposed changes to the Title I formula. But those proposals were left out of the final version of ESSA. 

Image by Getty and Laura Baker/Education Week


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