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A Fair Chance for Poor Students

Schools with lots of poor children are often poorly funded compared to other schools, undermining the country’s basic promise of equal opportunity.  A rule that the U.S. Department of Education is considering could help change that by leading states and localities to raise funding for high-poverty schools. 

Children in high-poverty schools often get the short end of the stick in two ways: 

  • High-poverty school districts in about a third of the states get less state and local funding per student than low-poverty districts.  That’s partly because much school funding comes from local property taxes, and property wealth varies greatly by neighborhood.  It’s also because states — which provide most of the rest of school funding — often don’t adequately offset disparities in local property wealth.
  • High-poverty schools also often receive less funding than low-poverty schools in the same district.  One reason is that they often have a bigger share of less experienced (and therefore lower-paid) teachers.  Another is that parents in low-poverty schools generally have more political clout and can get more funding. 

The Education Department rule seeks to address the second problem — disparities among schools within a district — for districts receiving federal funding for high-poverty schools through Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which policymakers renewed last year.

Title I aims to ensure that all children receive an education consistent with the country’s commitment to equal opportunity.  To make sure that school districts use Title I money as intended, the federal government has long required that Title I funds supplement, not supplant, state and local funding for poor schools.  Otherwise, districts could play a shell game — take the federal money with one hand and cut their own funding for poor schools with the other, leaving children in those schools no better off. 

Federal efforts to enforce this “supplement, not supplant” requirement have evolved over the years, and Congress altered the specific legal language in renewing the education act last year.  Congress didn’t specify how the Education Department should determine if districts comply with the new legal language; the department is considering requiring, for the first time, that districts give each Title I school at least as much state and local funding per student as the average non-Title I school in the district. 

If anything, high-poverty schools need more funding than other schools to give their kids an equal shot at fulfilling their potential.  And more funding for high-poverty schools produces better outcomes for poor children in adulthood, which benefits all of us.

Some opponents of the proposed rule argue that state budget problems preclude raising the new revenue needed to bring funding for Title I schools up to non-Title I schools’ levels, but most states have been reinvesting in their schools after deep, recession-era cuts, and improving property values across much of the country have put many school districts ― and states ― in a better position to raise revenue.  To be sure, raising new revenue almost always is challenging politically, but it’s wrong to claim that states and localities can’t afford to do so.

School districts would need time to adjust to the new funding standard, so the latest draft of the rule proposes a five-year phase-in period and exemptions to help districts overcome implementation challenges.  Fixing the chronic underfunding of high-poverty schools will require sustained commitment, but promoting equal opportunity is worth the effort.