Editor’s note: Last week, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Hoover Institution hosted a timely event, “A New Federal Push on Private School Choice? Three Options to Consider.” We are running guest posts by the event’s panelists, offering their advice for the new Administration and Congress. Below is an article by McKenzie Snow, a policy analyst in education choice at the Foundation for Excellence in Education. These posts do not necessarily reflect the views of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
The recent inauguration of President Donald Trump and nomination of Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos has engendered an unprecedented opportunity for the federal government to support the success of school choice in the states. Among other major education policy changes, this could mean allowing states to innovate in their distribution of federal Title I dollars, so that funds are more transparent, student-centered, and targeted to make a meaningful impact on the disadvantaged students served.
Despite almost $15 billion appropriated for Title I grants to districts in FY 2016 alone, Title I has had a negligible impact on the disadvantaged students the program was intended to serve (see here, here, here, and here). Furthermore, since Title I was enacted over half a century ago, our education landscape has, not surprisingly, changed drastically. Today, twenty-five states plus D.C. are host to fifty private education choice programs. Nearly seven thousand charter schools serve students in forty-three states and D.C.
Perhaps it’s beyond time to give states the flexibility to make their Title I funds “portable,” meaning that states would be allowed to let Title I dollars follow eligible children to the schools and educational services of their choice. The federal government would continue to allocate funds to states the same way, except that a state could take their total Title I allocation and instead opt-in to design and implement a portable program.
Unfortunately, for years, we’ve all heard the same arguments about why Title I portability can’t be done—or wouldn’t be worth the trouble even if it could. Below, I’ve responded to four of these perennial questions. The goal is to convince readers to give Title I portability a second look—with the hope that states can be free to try and do better for their low-income students.
1. Will portable grants be enough money to make a difference for individual private school students?
An appropriately constructed portable grant program could make a significant impact on individual students, especially in states with robust private school choice ecosystems.
The national average Title I grant is about $600 per student served. If, instead, states and districts were to serve only students meeting a poverty income level eligibility standard ($24,300 for a family of four), the national average Title I grant per eligible student would more than double to nearly $1,400. If used with an existing tax credit or state-funded scholarship, the private school options a disadvantaged student could access would greatly expand. (For context, NCES reports that the average tuition for Catholic elementary schools, the lowest average for private school tuition, was $5,330. The average scholarship provided by means-tested voucher programs in Indiana, North Carolina, and Ohio is about $4,000.)
A federal grant of $1,400 per year could also have a significant impact on a student remaining within the public school system, providing an estimated seventy-five hours of tutoring, or two hours of tutoring per week for the entire school year.
2. Won’t Title I portability open private schools and providers to federal regulations, and what about academic accountability?
Portable Title I grants to private school students should be parent-directed accounts that are considered assistance to the child, not assistance to the private school or provider. Private providers would not directly receive federal funds and, thus, would not incur unnecessary regulations that may interfere with the independence and unique mission of a private school.
However, that’s not to say that private schools serving Title I students would be free from accountability. Rather, ExcelinEd believes that all schools receiving public dollars should be subject to a range of policies that appropriately balance accountability with the autonomy essential to private schooling.
For example, states designing portable grants should decide the range of schools and programs at which students may use their parent-directed Title I account (perhaps accredited schools or licensed providers), and ensure that parents only spend funds on state-approved educational expenses. In addition, ExcelinEd supports Title I portability legislative proposals (like the Scholarships for Kids Act sponsored by Chairman Alexander of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) that would require that participating educational providers administer a state-approved test and report on results.
Such academic accountability requirements work well with what many existing state-run private school choice programs require, and portable grants to private school students would be most impactful if disbursed in tandem with these programs. Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program, for example, which serves more than ninety-seven thousand of the state’s low-income students, requires that private schools administer their choice of a norm reference test or the state assessment. Results are reported to an independent evaluator (Learning Systems Institute at Florida State University), which issues a public report on the academic achievement of participating students.
3. Must schools prove that they are spending the Title I money on the children who generate the funds?
For public schools serving Title I students, no policy change is recommended. Currently, about 94 percent of all Title I participants are served in “schoolwide programs,” meaning that Title I funds may be used to serve all students in the school (not just Title I participants). And, under the Every Student Succeeds Act, a state can choose to treat all their Title I schools as schoolwide programs. Public schools receiving Title I funds under a portable system should not have to prove funds were spent on certain students either.
For nonpublic students, a similar approach is recommended. Nonpublic students participating in Title I could receive parent-directed accounts to pay for state-approved educational expenses (such as private school tuition, tutoring, online learning program fees, testing fees, textbooks and curriculum). If a parent chose to direct funds toward private school tuition, the receiving private school would not have to show it was providing the student with supplemental services because the Title I funds were very clearly spent on the participating student—in the form of private school tuition.
4. Wouldn’t Title I portability drain money from our poor, urban schools?
Title I is currently focused on funding a system of schools, not disadvantaged students. A portability option would allow states to instead fund eligible children—putting students first in a very real way. Furthermore, arguing against any voluntary change to the status quo assumes that current Title I funding distribution is fair. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
We’ve been hearing a lot about Michigan’s education system recently. Under the current Title I funding distribution system, Detroit City School District receives about $4,100 per child. The School District of the City of Inkster—less than thirty minutes away from downtown Detroit and with essentially the same poverty rate—receives about $1,350 per child or one-third of Detroit’s per pupil allocation. (See Marguerite Roza and Robin Lake here.) Because of the Title I distribution required by four competing federal formulas—each of which has different allocation patterns, prioritizes different states and localities, and is meant to create different incentives—the per pupil allocation between different states and districts seems erratic.
In addition to considering the integrity of Title I’s current funding distribution, it is important to take a sober look at the likely rate of student transfers in a portable system. The transfer rates in states with public and private school choice programs are gradual, and Title I-eligible students – and, therefore, Title I dollars—would not likely depart any school or district overnight.
To limit the impact of transitioning to portability on dependent schools, states could include weights for concentrations of poverty, allotting more Title I dollars to students in attendance areas with poverty rates above a certain threshold. States also could have the option to include hold harmless provisions based on poverty concentration that limit the amount of federal dollars a school or district could lose each year. However, such hold harmless provisions could complicate and curb the extent to which funds truly follow the child in a state’s portable Title I program.
Clearly, the current Title I funding distribution system isn’t perfectly fair or impressively impactful. Allowing states to design and implement transparent, student-centered Title I distribution systems that better reflect their unique education landscapes does more than shift money around. Portability empowers states to target resources so that Title I funding can have a meaningful impact on their neediest students. Simply put, Title I portability would provide states the freedom to try to serve their low-income students with existing federal dollars better—if they want.
McKenzie Snow is a policy analyst in education choice at the Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd).
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.