This Tuesday, the Senate began floor debate on reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)-a centerpiece of federal education policy dating back to Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty.” The ESEA has not been renewed since its expiration in 2007, so the upcoming debate holds key opportunities to improve our federal education appropriation system and ensure that it does the most to help vulnerable students.
One of the best ways to improve the ESEA this week is through Title I reform. Title I of the ESEA (the Act’s largest funding program) gives out grants for low-income students, and is designed to close achievement gaps between them and their wealthier peers. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) is expected to reintroduce an amendment to allow Title I dollars to follow individual students to the private or public school of their choice. Given the counterproductive funding requirements currently tied to Title I grants, Scott’s amendment holds promise. It would reduce state and district-level administrative burdens, fix school-funding inequities caused by Title I regulations, and create competitive incentives for schools to better serve their kids.
The current Title I program is broken. A meta-analysis of 17 federal studies on its effectiveness indicated only a modest overall impact, while another by Harvard University concluded the program had failed in its original mission of closing achievement gaps between disadvantaged and wealthy students.
Examining what schools have to go through to get Title I funding, it is easy to see why. The program’s litany of regulations forces the administrative staff of states and districts to spend resources proving compliance with requirements on how they spend their grants to avoid losing eligibility. This wastes time and money that could be used to allocate the funding in ways that best serves their schools’ individual needs. The “supplement not supplant” and “comparability” provisions, discussed at length in Reason Foundation’s Title I reform analysis, restricts states’ abilities to combine these dollars with pre-existing state funding for low-income students to create comprehensive programs. And because Title I allocates grants to schools rather than individual students, it actually promotes per-student funding inequalities between schools, especially at larger schools with high enrollment but low percentages of low-income kids.
Scott’s Title I portability amendment has the potential to change all of this. Tying Title I funds to eligible students relieves administrative burdens by removing the need to justify expenditures. It also ensures that every school gets the same amount of per-student grants for every low-income child they educate. By making these funds portable, wherever these students enroll, low-income pupils will be able to expand their educational options. They will benefit from administrators with new incentives to attract and retain them to get access to the dollars they bring. Portable Title I funding could even be combined with an expansion of state vouchers, tax-credit scholarship programs, and education savings accounts that have proven positive effects on achievement for disadvantaged students.
Scott’s Title I amendment should be a key piece of the ESEA reauthorization. It reduces administrative costs, increases funding equality, gives parents more power, and gives administrators an incentive to provide the best education possible to underserved kids. If we really care about giving our most disadvantaged the best shot in life, this is a big part of how to do it.
Tyler Koteskey is an education policy analyst at Reason Foundation. This article originally appeared at The Hill.