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

Aug 31, 2016
Originally published on September 1, 2016 3:33 pm

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."

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 choices out 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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The U.S. Department of Education proposed new rules this week with one goal in mind - to make sure that districts spend their money more evenly between affluent schools and high-poverty schools. Cory Turner of the NPR Ed team explains how the rules would work and the debate that they've reopened.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Education Secretary John B. King, Jr., wants to be clear. Many districts, he says, don't spend their money evenly.


JOHN B KING JR: We see that there are schools serving high-need students where the entire student population is in poverty. And they're actually spending 25 to 30 percent less than a school 10 blocks away that serves largely affluent students.

TURNER: King spoke with NPR's Michel Martin in an interview to air this weekend. So why is spending so uneven? One big reason is teacher pay. High-poverty schools generally have a harder time attracting more experienced and more expensive teachers. Those schools King mentioned - well, they may have the same number of staff jobs, but the teachers in more affluent schools can end up costing their districts a lot more money.

The ed. department isn't proposing an end to all of this. It's saying, more broadly, the districts have to find a better balance. If they want to spend more money on teachers in school A, fine, but they've got to make up that difference somehow in school B. King admits that's still a hard message for some to hear.

KING JR: But I don't think it's acceptable for local leaders to say, because it's hard, we can't honor students' civil rights.

TURNER: And here's where things get complicated.

CHRIS MINNICH: There are ways we can get more resources to low-income kids, and this isn't it.

TURNER: Chris Minnich is executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. He agrees with the intent here, but not the fine print. If districts are forced to spread their money more evenly, they'll have two options - find new money or move around old money by cutting programs at more affluent schools or perhaps, he says, transferring some of those more expensive teachers.

MINNICH: Regardless of the quality of their instruction, really - only based on how much they cost. It's not something that we're interested in doing in states or districts.

TURNER: Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, is quick to point out that there is language in the proposal to protect against this. The union leader agrees with some of what the ed. department is trying to do, especially the part about leveling the playing field for low-income kids.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: At the same time, we need to make sure that you don't destabilize that which works.

TURNER: Weingarten argues districts shouldn't have to take money, programs or teachers away from one school and give them to another. The focus, she says, shouldn't be on reshuffling all that old money, but on pushing states and districts to find new money. She knows that since the recession, new money for education has been really hard to come by in much of the country. Still, Weingarten says...

WEINGARTEN: People will raise taxes if they know that they're not buying a pig in a poke, if they know that funding is for things that work and are relevant and are viable.

TURNER: Things like high-quality preschool, guidance counselors and wraparound services for vulnerable students. And so this is that kind of fight when all sides say they want the same thing - a fair system that doesn't further disadvantage the disadvantaged. It's how to build that system that bedevils them. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.