Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Tinkering with Poor Kids' Money in Los Angeles: Is Congress or the District to Blame?

A few commentators recently noticed how Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) had changed the rules for distributing Title I funds (federal anti-poverty money).  The major shift occurred when the district changed its standard for determining which schools are eligible to receive Title I money.  Previously, a school had to enroll 40% low income students.  In 2011, the requirement moved to 50%.  As a result, about 24 schools in the district lost Title I funding.  Commentators now claim that some schools were charterized or new charters sprung up because they could avoid this rule and seek other grants.  

Getting to the  bottom of the blame game and what is fair is difficult for the average observer because Title I's funding formulas are so complex.  Title I money is distributed through no less than four formulas.  Some factors are consistent across those formulas, but many key ones are not. (A full explanation of Title I's formulas is available here).  For this post's purposes, it suffices to say that Congress sets one threshold for whether a district receives Title I funds, but once those funds get to the district, the district sets its own standards for which schools within the district receive funds.  In other words, Congress funds districts, not schools.  Districts fund schools.

Commentators, including Diane Ravitch, are blaming LAUSD and charter schools, which I can appreciate, because the district is the place where the effects are most directly controlled and felt. But the locus of the problem is that LAUSD is put in a compromised position of making tough choices between schools because Congress's has set such irrational standards for the distribution of funds to districts.  As detailed in my article, The Congressional Failure to Enforce Equal Protection Through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Congress gives Title I funds to 90% of the school districts in the country because it sets the threshold for eligibility at a mere 2% in the county in which the district rests.  Thus, LAUSD has fewer Title I dollars because Congress is sending money to places that do not have a poverty problem.  Congress needs to bump up the eligibility requirements significantly and more heavily weight concentrated poverty in its future formulas.

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