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Today Rep. John Kline (R-MN), chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, introduced the State and Local Funding Flexibility Act, a bill that would provide states and school districts greater flexibility to spend federal money. Some autonomy and flexibility can improve the way schools are run, as work by the Center for American Progress has pointed out. But the House proposal pushes flexibility too far and would undermine the primary federal commitment to education: providing extra assistance for educationally disadvantaged students.
The Flexibility Act would allow districts to cut or eliminate funding for low-income students, English language learners, and afterschool programs by moving money out of those programs into others such as programs for rural students or early intervention services for struggling students. The result is that groups of children may have to compete against each other for funding. If passed, this bill would dismantle decades of reliable federal investment in the education of disadvantaged children.
In the end, this bill is poor policy because it continues House Republicans’ cut-and-run approach to education. In February the House passed a budget bill that would have cut education funding by $5 billion. In May the House Education and Workforce Committee passed a bill that eliminated 42 education programs. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA). Now with this new bill, Republicans are marching ahead by retreating on the federal role in education to ensure states and districts prioritize disadvantaged students.
What would the law do?
The Flexibility Act would increase flexibility in two ways. It would increase the ability of school districts to transfer funds between various federal programs. And it would provide similar “transferability” to states.
District flexibility. First, districts could move money out of eight federal programs into 13 other programs. A district, for example, could decide federal programs designed for supporting low-income students (Title I, Part A of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, currently known as No Child Left Behind) or English language learners (Title III, Part A) are too onerous or a low priority. So under this bill they could move funds out of those programs and into Title V, Part A—a general fund for “innovative programs” that carries fewer strings or accountability measures. The reverse is also true, but it is hard to imagine many districts would choose the option of putting money into programs with more strings attached. Districts would still be required to adhere to some aspects of current law, such as paying for students in struggling schools to attend another school, paying for students to purchase tutoring services, or ensuring private schools can benefit from some of their services.
State flexibility. Secondly, states could move money out of 11 federal programs and into 13 other programs. The programs mostly mirror those available to districts.
Limitations. The bill limits states and districts in some key ways. States and districts would still have to uphold the main accountability provisions in Title I and Title III. States would still require districts and schools to set high education standards, assess students, and create plans for helping students and schools that do not reach those standards. Despite this important caveat, the bill has several glaring problems the public should be aware of.
What’s so bad about flexibility?
If adopted, the bill would harm the education of our nation’s students in at least five ways.
Leaving some children behind. The Flexibility Act would allow districts to pull money out of the parts of Title I designated for low-income students, migratory children, and at-risk students including homeless youth. It would also allow districts to yank money set aside for English language learners in Title III. The very purpose of federal education law, since the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, is to ensure states and districts provide equitable services to disadvantaged students. This bill falls down on that responsibility. And it ignores the exponential growth of English language learner populations in all parts of the country, not to mention the already large numbers of school-aged children living in poverty.
Reducing responsibility to improve struggling schools. The Flexibility Act would allow districts (though not states) to transfer funds out of Title I, Part A, the central section of federal law that holds districts accountable for devoting more time, resources, and support to low-performing schools and schools with significant populations of low-income students. While the bill would require districts to adhere to some of the existing accountability requirements, it is unclear how pulling money out of those programs might dampen or reduce district responsibility.
Protecting unproven programs. The Flexibility Act would require districts, among other things, to continue funding usually ineffective interventions, such as school choice and tutoring services in low-performing schools. Research has shown these programs are weak approaches for improving schools.
Leaving existing problems unsolved. The Flexibility Act fails to fix the numerous problems in current law. No Child Left Behind ensures teachers have basic credentials to get in the door, but it fails to ensure they are effective in the classroom. It allows districts to fund schools inequitably. It identifies schools as failing but does not give them the right tools and resources to improve. The Flexibility Act fails to address any of these broken pipes of the education system, though House leadership contends it will eventually get around to it. Republicans are acting like plumbers who clock out for the day with pipes still leaking.
Increasing the administrative burdens of states. The Flexibility Act could actually increase the administrative burdens on state education agencies. Under the bill, states would continue to administer all the programs written in current law, but they would also have to receive and respond to districts’ applications for flexibility. That would put a strain on their already-limited capacity and divert state personnel to processing more paperwork—something Republicans have said they want to reduce, not increase. It is hard to imagine how the proposed flexibility enjoyed by state agencies would make up for the additional challenges.
Thanks, but no thanks
Some argue that federal requirements are too burdensome and that states and districts need more flexibility to educate the nation’s students. The Center agrees that some federal red tape gets in the way of state and local innovation, and we argue that several federal programs and requirements should be consolidated or eliminated.
But the Flexibility Act provides too much leeway, leaving too many students defenseless from shortsighted cuts to programs serving their needs. A wise public should say “thanks, but no thanks” to such a cut-and-run proposal.
Jeremy Ayers is a Senior Education Policy Analyst at American Progress.
. Most of the programs overlap. In this case districts can move money out of Title I, Parts A, C, or D; Title II, Part A; Title III, Part A; Title V, Part A; Title VII, Part A; or funding from the Education Jobs bill. They may then spend that money for any activity authorized under the following: Title I, Section 1003; Title I, Parts A, B (Subpart 1), C, or D; Title II, Part A; Title III, Part A; Title IV, Part B; Title V, Part A; Title VI, Part B, Subpart 2; Title VII, Part A; or Section 613(f) of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a section designed to provide early intervention to students at risk of (but not yet identified for) special education services.
. Most of the programs overlap. In this case states can move money out of Title I, Parts B, C, or D; Title II, Parts A or B; Title III, Part A; Title IV, Part B; Title V, Part A; or funding from the EduJobs bill. They may then spend that money for any activity authorized under the following: Title I, Sections 1003 or 1004; Title I, Parts B, C, or D; Title II, Parts A or B; any part of Title III; Title IV, Part B; Title V, Part A; Title VI, Part A, Subpart I or Part B, Subpart 2; Title VIII, Part A, Subpart 2.
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Associate Director, Federal Education Programs