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New Federal Rules For Distributing School Money: An 'Unfunded Mandate'?

Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Education unveiled new rules, explaining to states and districts how they can prove they're spreading resources fairly between poor and less-poor schools.

Today's release is a re-write of rules that were first unveiled last spring and that caused quite a stir, creating a political unicorn: a fight in which Republicans and teachers unions found themselves on the same side.

That fight hinged on a simple fact of life in America's schools: Districts often spend more money in more affluent schools. That's because teachers in poorer schools that receive federal Title I aid tend to be less experienced and, as a result, less expensive.

This spending pattern has, for years, angered civil rights advocates who see it as fundamentally unfair — a system that disadvantages the disadvantaged. But it's hard to imagine a fix that doesn't involve forcing some of those more expensive teachers to teach in poorer schools.

Last spring, Education Secretary John B. King Jr. proposed rules that would have attacked that imbalance, for the first time requiring districts to spend "an amount of state and local funds per pupil in each Title I school that is equal to or greater than the average amount spent per pupil in non-Title I schools."

That's a complicated way of saying: The system's got to be fair.

Opposition from Republicans and teachers unions was fierce. They talked of less-poor schools being forced to cut costs and transfer their best teachers.

"We don't want to hurt one school to help another school. We have to help all schools," Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, told NPR in May. "If you know other kids are gonna get hurt by this, why would you do it?"

Secretary King and his team spent the summer fielding this kind of criticism and promising to rewrite, which brings us full-circle to today's news.

So, what's changed in the language? Has King backed down?

In short: Not much. And No.

"For too long, the students who need the most have gotten the least," King said today in a statement. "No single measure will erase generations of resource inequities, and there is much more work to do across states and districts to address additional resource inequities, but this is a concrete step forward to help level the playing field and ensure compliance with the law."

LA Johnson / NPR

According to today's release, districts could do that in one of four ways:

  • "A weighted student funding formula that provides additional resources for students ... in poverty, English learners, and students with disabilities, and ensures that each Title I schools receives all of the actual funds to which it is entitled under that system;
  • "A formula that allocates resources including staff positions and non-personnel resources directly to schools, and that ensures each Title I school gets all of the funding it is entitled to, as measured by the sum of (1) the number of personnel in the school multiplied by the district's average salaries for each staff category, and (2) the number of students in the school multiplied by the district's average per-pupil expenditures for non-personnel resources;
  • "An alternative, funds-based test developed by the state and approved by a panel of expert peer reviewers that is as rigorous as the above two options; or
  • "A methodology selected by the district that ensures the per-pupil funding in each Title I school is at least as much as the average per-pupil funding in non-Title I schools within the district."
  • The new rule, in response to union criticism, also encourages districts to avoid the forced transfer of teachers.

    To the Education Department's critics, the differences between today's revised language and the original guidance are minor.

    U.S. Rep. John Kline (R-MN), chairman of the House Committee on Education, came out swinging this morning. "This punitive policy will unleash havoc on schools," he said in a statement. "America's poorest neighborhoods will be hit the hardest as communities are forced to relocate teachers, raise taxes, or both."

    The AFT's Weingarten was more measured in a statement today: "As much as we agree with the intent, the proposed regulations, as drafted, are an unfunded mandate from Washington that exhorts districts to boost their investment in schools with disadvantaged children without identifying or compelling the resources to do so."

    "I think it will result in, sort of, Sophie's choicesout there," says Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, "where states will either have to lower spending in certain schools to come into compliance with this rule or states will be making bad choices about how we best serve kids."

    Minnich says he agrees with the spirit of the rule, to better serve low-income kids, but "that's not what it's going to end up doing."

    As was the case last spring, this new language appears to have strong support from civil rights leaders.

    "Our system of funding education is unfair and unwise," says Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, "and this draft rule is an important step toward improving an intolerable status quo. Our states and districts routinely spend less money to educate children facing greater challenges. This rule doesn't solve this massive problem — no single rule could — but it's a step in the right direction and brings us closer to a more just education system."

    If there's any sense to be made from this debate that seems all but guaranteed to rage on, it's that the Education Department and its critics actually agree on one thing: Students in high-poverty schools need more help.

    What they don't agree on is how to help them.

    This new rule, if it remains unchanged (which is a big if), would essentially force the issue, requiring that states and districts raise new money to help schools meet these obligations.

    But critics, including Minnich, worry that there's just not enough new money in many places (or the will to raise taxes) to do what the Department wants. And they fear, without that new money, districts and states will have no choice but to simply redistribute old money and teachers.

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    Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.