Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Will Obama's Last Act Be a Major Reform to Address School Funding Inequity?

CNN reports that the "Obama administration is considering a major last-minute policy shift that could force hundreds of school districts to cut spending at well-financed elementary and secondary schools and move nearly $1 billion dollars to schools with large numbers of low-income students."  The story does not dig into the details, but my assumption is that they are referencing Secretary of Education King's plan to use the supplement, not supplant provision as a mechanism to force intra-district funding equity.  While inequities between school districts tend to be much larger than inequities within school districts, the later is arguably more perverse.  Data shows that many school districts simply do not fund their own schools equally.  They use federal funds at low-income schools to replace local dollars and then move those local dollars to schools serving more affluent students.  The net result is to cancel out the added boost that federal dollars are supposed to have.

As a matter of basic fairness and protecting the integrity of federal dollars, the Obama policy is entirely reasonable.  Under prior law, I argued here that for the past several decades the Department should have been doing something along the lines of what Obama is proposing.  Prior administration simply failed to do their job and looked the other way.  

There is, unfortunately, a major problem with Obama's new proposal: the Department probably lacks the legal authority to impose it.  A year ago, when Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in the form of the Every Student Succeeds Act, it severely limited the Department's overall authority, stripping the Secretary of several powers he/she had previously held.  On the hole, it reversed the federal role in education.  Recognizing as much, Secretary John King tried to find a loop-hole for exerting continued authority.  Supplement, not supplant was his chosen vehicle.  

As I argue here, however, I am afraid the funding equity regulation is a square peg that will not fit in this round hole.  If the Department makes this last minute move, it may not stand long.  The next administration would likely take steps to reverse it. And in the meantime, school districts would surely file suit in federal court challenging the validity of the regulation.  In fact, Senator Lamar Alexander has already urged them to do so if the regulation goes into effect.

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