Conservatives in the House of Representatives are at it again, trying to gut spending for those children in our nation who need extra help getting the education they need to succeed in the 21st century. Rep. John Kline (R-MN), chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, introduced the thoroughly misnamed Student Success Act earlier this month—the latest partisan attempt to repurpose the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that has done so much to ensure federal education funds go to the high-poverty schools that need the most help.
Rep. Kline’s bill would go a long way toward turning the law’s largest program, Title I—which provides federal funding for high-poverty elementary and secondary schools—into a block-grant program by dispensing with Title I’s “maintenance-of-effort” provision. Title I maintenance of effort requires that in a given year states and districts receiving Title I funds spend 90 percent of what they spent from nonfederal sources in the previous year. This ensures that states and school districts do not shortchange high-poverty schools by shifting federal funds toward other purposes.
Rep. Kline’s Student Success Act has other shortcomings, too, but the idea of dropping the maintenance-of-effort provision is particularly ill advised. It would be one more step advocated by House Republicans toward dismantling longstanding federal provisions that ensure equitable education for all of our children. House Republicans claim they are taking this action to help states cope with budget shortfalls and to restore states’ rights over education spending. But the results would harm our poorest children and squander federal taxpayer dollars to boot.
The first argument put forth by proponents of dropping maintenance of effort puts this danger in full relief. Conservatives inaccurately contend that states and districts need this kind of assistance in “struggling with budget shortfalls.” This argument would be stronger if maintenance of effort was not already fully equipped to offer temporary relief to states and districts receiving Title I funds. The requirement can be waived in the event that states and districts suffer sudden and severe drops in revenue, and this safety valve rides on top of an existing and extraordinary 10 percent cushion for agencies facing tough times.
Take Minnesota. The economic shock absorber inherent in the 90 percent maintenance-of-effort threshold is hard to miss. Below we show how Minnesota, home state of Rep. Kline, already has room to cope with economic woes without enduring penalties to its Title I allocation. Figure 1 shows Minnesota’s current expenditures on education from nonfederal sources, in blue, and a cascade of hypothetically reduced expenditures from the 2000-01 school year to the 2008-09 school year. The important point here is that despite unimaginable reductions in education spending, Minnesota would have suffered no penalty at the hands of the maintenance-of-effort provision. (see Figure 1)
The second misplaced argument for dropping the maintenance-of-effort requirement is that it discourages states from constructively reducing education spending, for example by finding savings or improving efficiency. Yet the 90 percent spending threshold is blind to whether spending reductions are driven by revenue shortfalls or efficiency gains. Adherents of the argument are especially worried that states and districts, fearing maintenance-of-effort penalties, will fail to embrace technologies such as virtual schooling with some promise of radically reducing the cost of providing educational services with the same potency as the current mix of services.
Optimism about schools’ abilities to adopt cost-saving technology is a good thing, and the potential for radical cost savings is great. Moore’s law—the number of transistors on a microchip doubles every two years—and the ever-falling cost of computing have had enormous impact on many industries. Yet there are many obstacles to implementing cost-saving technologies—what economists call substituting capital for labor—in public education. Listing the Title I maintenance-of-effort requirement high among them borders on the credulous.
The third misconceived argument for dropping maintenance of effort, repeated by Rep. Kline at an American Enterprise Institute event celebrating the introduction of his Student Success Act, is that the requirement is tainted by a faulty premise—that more spending translates to better results. This argument has merit only as an example of the straw man fallacy.
The relationship between inputs and outputs in education is notoriously fuzzy, and reasonable people can disagree about what the relevant body of evidence says on the matter. But this dispute has nothing to do with the purpose of the maintenance-of-effort requirement. The purpose of this provision is to prevent grantees from using Title I funds to support spending on public services other than education, or to offer tax relief.
The relationship between the receipt of Title I funds and results in schools does, however, have a lot to do with the accountability provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The Student Success Act would roll back accountability for academic results to the 20th century, requiring few results from states in exchange for Title I funds.
Don’t tread on me
The final argument for stripping Title I of its maintenance-of-effort provision is basically an ideological principle: “The federal government should not dictate state and local spending decisions as a condition of receiving federal funds.” By this rationale, no federal program should have a matching requirement, or condition for the receipt of federal funds in any way. Rep. Kline and supporters of the Student Success Act apparently believe that states and districts should be able to do as they please with their share of the $14.5 billion or so in annual appropriations for Title I.
What would this mean in practice? Well, if a state wants to reduce its investment in elementary and secondary education in order to build a new prison, or provide tax relief, that’s its business, or so the reasoning goes. Clearly the federal government has a role to play in safeguarding the interests of low-income students by creating some parameters around the receipt of federal funds targeting services to them.
The bottom line
Pushing for block-grant distributions of federal funds to the states has gained substantial momentum in the House of Representatives in recent years. It seems sadly out of place next to rhetoric about fiscal responsibility, and it’s certainly incompatible in the context of education spending with the original and current purpose of Title I funds—to enhance the educational experiences of children raised in concentrated poverty. A lot has changed since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed in 1965, but poverty and achievement gaps remain serious problems.
Stripping Title I of a requirement that ensures federal funds address educational inequity is dangerous because our nation’s economic competitiveness and its democratic institutions need, more than ever, a well-educated citizenry. We should expect more from Congress in the reauthorization process.
Raegen Miller is Associate Director of Education Research at the Center for American Progress.