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How Language in NCLB Draft Bill Affects School Choice

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By Alyson Klein. Cross-posted from the Politics K-12 blog.

Testing may be eating up all the oxygen in the debate over renewing the No Child Left Behind Act, but there's another issue that's really important to keep your eye on: Title I portability.

That's the wonky name for a provision in a draft NCLB rewrite bill by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, to reauthorize the NCLB law. The provision would allow Title I funding—a nearly $15 billion program aimed at helping districts cover the cost of educating disadvantaged kids—to follow children to the public (not private) school of their choice, as long as states give the okay.

That idea does not make education organizations—who would otherwise send Alexander thousands of muffin baskets if he's able to get flexibility on testing—very happy.

The reason: Advocates for school districts, including AASA, the School Superintendents Association, see Title I portability as a pit-stop on the highway that leads to Voucherville. In fact, AASA and 55 other organizations, including both teachers' unions, sent a letter to Alexander and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate education panel, voicing their strong opposition to the provision.

"This proposal would undermine Title I's fundamental purpose of assisting public schools with high concentrations of poverty and high-need students. Furthermore, Title I portability—even when limited to public schools—is a stepping-stone to private school vouchers," the organizations wrote. Read the full letter here.

Will education organizations pull their support for the Alexander bill if the language stays in? It's too early to say. AASA and the National School Boards Association continued to endorse a bill to reauthorize the NCLB law that passed the House of Representatives in 2013, even after former House Minority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., got an amendment added to the legislation that's almost identical to the language in Alexander's draft.

But, AASA at least isn't so sure that's going to be the political calculation this time around, said Sasha Pudelski, the assistant director of policy and advocacy for the organization.

 "It's not a winner to try and throw a private school voucher in here," she said. "We are generally very confused as to why it is in the bill if it is truly a public school option and not a voucher."

To be sure, the language doesn't go as far as past Title I portability proposals. For instance, Alexander introduced an amendment to a budget bill a few years ago that would have allowed states to direct Title I dollars to a private school. That was also the central edu-campaign pledge of Gov. Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee in 2012.

And Alexander cooked up a voucher bill last Congress that would have essentially turned nearly every federal program into a big giant block grant that could be used for school choice.

In fact, Lindsey Burke, the Will Skillman Fellow in Education at the conservative Heritage Foundation thinks the public school portability language should be a lot stronger.

"The proposal does not go far enough on Title I portability," she said in an email. "Conservatives have long worked toward Title I portability that would allow states to make their Title I dollars portable to public and private schooling options of choice. The current proposal would only allow TItle I funds to follow a child to a public school of choice, and as such, is a missed opportunity."

A voucher amendment is almost certain to be introduced during the education committee's consideration of the bill, or on the Senate floor.  

But if that passes, the bill will face even more opposition from education groups, including the National Education Association, which arguably has the strongest lobbying operation on Capitol Hill.

The NEA seriously opposes Title I portability for public schools, said Mary Kusler, the director of government relations for the union, in an interview.

"Title I is focused on children in poverty; we really need to fund the concentrations of poverty," she said. Among other things, the language would monkey with district budgeting and make planning difficult, she said.

But private school portability or an out-and-out voucher program would be even worse: "That's a totally different animal," Kusler said. "That's a direct dilution of the federal role" in providing an equitable education for all children. "You take federal dollars away [from public schools] you're really threatening that ability to provide a quality education for all children regardless of their zip code."

So is Title I portability a good compromise between education groups and the choice community, or a middle-of-the-road proposal that makes neither side happy? Comments section is open.

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