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Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is the largest federal program that provides support for poor students. Important Title I provisions aim to ensure that funds are spent on poor children and that districts fairly serve poor schools.
Yet, as implemented today, these provisions do little to make funding fairer, and they impose significant red tape on districts and schools. This is especially troubling given the thrust of the No Child Left Behind Act. If the federal government is going to ask high-poverty schools to succeed in educating poor children, then it needs to make sure those schools get a fair share of resources. And if it is going to make strong demands for results, then it needs to give school districts the flexibility to achieve them. The federal government cannot tell school systems to achieve great things and then tie their hands about how to do it, or consume their energies in endless bean-counting exercises.
The combination of thick red tape and thin equity in Title I today suggests a possible reform: demand greater fairness in the allocation of state and local dollars, but then offer greater freedom about how federal dollars are spent. Congress could tighten the “comparability” requirement in current law, which should drive equity, but doesn’t. It should at the same time weaken or eliminate the “supplement, not supplant” requirement, which creates needless red tape and shouldn’t. The next administration could also relax some of the regulatory bookkeeping requirements that add to districts’ burdens without improving educational quality.
This tradeoff would increase the pressure for equity, but on its face, it would reduce the demands for compliance. One question that would remain is whether a more aggressive comparability requirement, focused on dollars rather than “services,” would cause a new set of administrative and political headaches. Beefing up comparability should not create the heavy-handed mandates that eliminating “supplement, not supplant” aimed to take away. Without surveying all the design challenges regarding comparability, the paper concludes with some recommendations for how a stronger comparability provision could be managed on the ground.
The paper aims to stir further debate about arcane but critical aspects of federal education law.
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