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The 'Intolerable' Fight Over School Money

LA Johnson

"This is an intolerable situation," Sen. Lamar Alexander said last week in a heated speech on the Senate floor.

The Tennessee Republican is chairman of the Senate's education committee, and he is furious with the Education Department. He even gave states some remarkable advice:

"If the regulations are not consistent with the law, I don't believe [states] should follow them," he said. "If the department persists, then the state should go to court to sue the department."

Things could get even more heated Wednesday as Alexander, himself a former education secretary, hosts a Senate hearing to spotlight his frustration with the current secretary, John B. King Jr.

Why is he so angry?

The easy answer: Title I. That's the $15 billion the federal government sends to districts to help schools that serve lots of low-income students.

But there's nothing easy — or simple — about this fight.

Alexander and King disagree on how to enforce the new law governing Title I. It says that to get federal money, districts have to prove a few things — among them, that they're using state and local dollars to provide roughly the same services to kids in poor and non-poor schools alike.

"Basically, schools within a school district have to be similar," says Liz King, director of education policy at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. "The idea here is that if they're not similar, then these federal dollars are just going to fill in gaps."

Everyone agrees that Title I dollars are not supposed to gap-fill. They're meant to be extra — the technical term is "supplemental" — for low-income kids who need them most. What the sides don't agree on is how districts prove they're not just filling gaps and that state and local resources are being spread fairly.

The current system is not fair, says the Education Department's King. "What we see, as we look around the country, is districts where they're actually spending significantly more in their non-Title I schools than they're spending in their Title I schools."

The Teacher Salary Gap

Nora Gordon, of Georgetown University, studies Title I and says much of that spending gap between poor and non-poor schools comes from teacher salaries.

"High-poverty schools typically have more teacher turnover," Gordon says. "That means they have more novice teachers."

And novice teachers cost less. That matters because, believe it or not, most school budgets are based on staff positions instead of actual teacher salaries.

To comply with the law, according to Alexander, districts have to show that all schools are getting their fair share of jobs, not dollars.

As a result, schools may have similar student-teacher ratios, but non-Title I schools often end up getting and spending more local and state money to pay for their more experienced teacher corps.

The Education Department wants to change that. It is proposing a rule to require that districts prove their actual spending per student in poorer schools is equal to, or greater than, the average spent in non-poor schools.

But Alexander isn't having it. He insists that Congress debated whether to address this teacher-salary spending gap and chose not to. To him, the law is clear:

"You've got to be spending a comparable amount of money in schools that get the [Title I] money and schools that don't — except teacher salaries may not be included in that computation. That is in the law."

A recent report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service appears to back Alexander, finding that "a legal argument could be raised that ED exceeded its statutory authority."

Unintended Consequences

The Education Department's plan also worries Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

"We don't want to hurt one school to help another school. We have to help all schools," Weingarten says.

Her concern is that unless districts and states find new money for their poorer schools (and our School Money series showed how rare that is), their less poor schools will — under the Education Department's proposal — have to make cuts. That could mean losing valuable programs or even transferring some of those more experienced (and expensive) teachers.

"And if you know other kids are gonna get hurt by this, why would you do it?" Weingarten asks.

In this way, the Title I fight pits pragmatism against principle.

On one side are Weingarten and many of the nation's school leaders, who say this attempt to level the playing field is well-intentioned but would come at too high a cost to other kids and schools.

In the opposite corner are the Education Department and advocates who argue: This is about protecting students' civil rights.

"When is it ever OK to spend less money on the education of poor children than we spend on the education of non-poor children?" Liz King asks.

It's a simple question. The answer is anything but.

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Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.