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Study: Find Another Way to Re-do Title I

Re-upping the Elementary and Secondary Education Act may be a long shot this year, but that hasn't stopped the drumbeat from rural schools to overhaul the way federal Title I funds for disadvantaged students are allocated.

The latest round: A study by a research and advocacy group suggests one talked-about fix would hurt rural schools, not make funding more equitable. The June 25 issue of Rural Policy Matters, published by the Rural School and Community Trust, argues that tying funding to average salaries in local communities is no more equitable than tying it to state spending on education.

Reform of the Title I allocation formula is a complicated policy issue that hasn't gained much political traction or public visibility. But it illustrates fundamental obstacles small, rural districts face: how to pay for needs that come with a hefty price tag when assistance is constrained by policy that favors scale.

Schools use Title I money to assist children in poverty, who are often those at risk for academic failure. It's an especially important source of federal aid to predominantly rural states with concentrated poverty. Think the Mississippi Delta, the Appalachian region, northeastern North Carolina, and corridors in southwestern states such as Arizona and New Mexico.

The hitch? The way the No Child Left Behind Act parses out Title I funds puts small, poor school districts at a disadvantage in two respects. This piece by Marty Strange of the RSCT on the Daily Yonder explains it well. (Caution: Strange comes at this issue with a point of view, but his research is solid.)

Flaw No. 1: Payments are based on the number of poor students a district has rather than the percentage of poor students. That means large urban and suburban school districts get more money. They have the numbers. Rural, sparsely populated school districts get less—even though many face the formidable challenge of educating very high percentages of at-risk students.

Flaw No. 2: Allocations are also based on a state's per-pupil spending numbers. That means if a poor state can't spend as much as more-wealthy states, its school districts get less money to help poor students—an irony almost everyone agrees is not equitable policy.

One fix that's been discussed: using the average salaries of college-educated, non-teachers in school districts as determined by the U.S. Department of Education's Comparable Wage Index. The idea is to estimate the cost of education and tie Title I allocations to that measure. Rural Policy Matters argues that's counter-intuitive, and won't work any better for poor, rural schools than the current policy:

"Adjustments to the formulas that would tie funding amounts to the salary levels of college-educated workers, such as incorporating a CWI index to determine education "costs," would take money away from poorer districts and send it to wealthier ones. While it seems obvious, it bears saying that where there are fewer well-paying jobs there is more poverty and vice versa.
Using the CWI to adjust Title I funding would be particularly bad for rural districts. That's because all school districts in metropolitan areas—whether inner city poor or wealthy suburban—are assigned the CWI for the entire metro area. In Massachusetts, for example, high-poverty Chelsea and low-poverty Abingdon both get the same CWI because they are part of the same Boston metropolitan area.
Rural counties, on the other hand, tend to be clustered with similarly situated rural counties, many uniformly poor with few well-paying jobs for anyone, including residents with college educations."

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