Congress has included billions of dollars in its $2 trillion coronavirus relief package for K-12 schools, but it is not clear that the money will reach the schools that most need it.

In this post, an expert on the subject explains why that is the case, and offers a solution that Congress could consider as it moves ahead with more education relief aid. This was written by Rachel Dinkes, a principal researcher at the American Institutes for Research, or AIR, the world’s largest nonprofit behavioral and social science research and evaluation organization.

How funding is allocated and distributed is complicated and complex, involving mathematical processes that many of us (including me) can’t grasp. Still, it’s important to understand, and Dinkes is as qualified as anybody to explain it in a way a general reader can understand.

Dinkes has provided expertise to projects supporting the U.S. Education Department. For the department’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), she co-wrote the congressionally mandated report, “Study of the Title I, Part A Grant Program Mathematical Formulas.” The report responded to a mandate under the Every Student Succeeds Act to examine the federal allocation and distribution of Title I funds to understand whether existing formulas benefit or unduly disadvantage any school districts. As a part of the project, Dinkes helped oversee the development of a school district Comparable Wage-Index to provide insight on the actual purchasing power of federal funds.

In her current position supporting NCES, Dinkes serves as a U.S. delegate to three Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development education groups. She is responsible for overseeing the contribution of U.S. data for the annual OECD publication, “Education at a Glance,” which provides the best available comparative data on education in OECD countries. And she ensures that the U.S. data is comparable with other countries that have unique educational systems and that the United States is accurately and fairly portrayed in the OECD’s annual report.

That report covers a wide array of education topics including participation in early childhood programs; salaries and work hours for public school teachers; high school graduation rates; college attendance and graduation rates; expenditures for education; educational attainment; and employment outcomes. The indicators are complex and use various statistics, including percentages, ratios, growth rates, time-series analyses and economic models.

Dinkes earned her doctorate from George Washington University Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, where her research examined the causes of policy change, specifically how the Obama administration used the 2009 Recovery Act to make domestic education policy. She earned her master’s degree in social research methodology (statistics) from the London School of Economics.

Before her graduate work, she was a survey statistician at the Census Bureau.

By Rachel Dinkes

The coronavirus pandemic has created many challenges for public education as schools have closed to stem the spread of the virus. Teaching and learning are occurring at home for millions of educators and students, requiring a significant investment in infrastructure and technology — at a time when state and local budgets are in a precarious situation.

To help states and school districts manage this crisis, the federal government included $13.5 billion in funding for K-12 schools as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, known as the Cares Act, which the president signed into law March 27. But it’s not clear that this money will get to the schools and districts that need it most because of the way it’s being allocated.

There is, however, a solution to this problem that’s already baked into federal education law.

This first wave of Cares K-12 relief funding will be distributed in the same proportion as Title I funding, which is provided to states each year to support the education of low-income students. While using the overall Title I formula is an easy grab for Congress, research shows it may not direct funds to the districts that serve the most students in need.

As Congress debates additional education assistance, it should take steps to ensure that any future funding is targeted to schools that serve the neediest students, those students that live in districts with concentrated poverty. Due to long-standing inequities, it is those students who are likely to be most impacted from extended school shutdowns and the economic downturn resulting from the pandemic.

Luckily, within Title I, there are already two programs that direct funding to those who need it most.

It is important to understand that Title I dollars are distributed through four grant programs — Basic Grants, Concentration Grants, Targeted Grants and Education Finance Incentive Grants (EFIGs). Congress knows that the mathematical formulas underpinning Title I allocations are complicated and can warp and distort funding in unintended ways.

To better understand how these formulas work (or don’t work), Congress mandated a report, “Study of the Title I, Part A Grant Program Mathematical Formulas,” which I co-wrote and was released in 2019.

The report found that only two of the four current Title I grant programs — Targeted and EFIGs — allocate higher amounts of funding per eligible student to the poorest districts. The other two Title I grant programs, Basic and Concentration Grants, allocate more money per eligible child to schools in the wealthiest districts.

Why are allocations per eligible child higher in the wealthiest districts for Basic and Concentration Grants when Title I is intended to support schools that serve the most children from low-income households? The primary reason is that Basic Grants, which make up 45 percent of Title I funding, have a very low threshold for counting eligible children.

To qualify for Basic Grant funding, a district must have at least 10 eligible children and the number of children must be more than 2 percent of a local education agency’s school-age population. Even the wealthiest school districts in America will meet this threshold.

But when additional grants were added to the Title I program (Concentration Grants in the 1970s and Targeted and EFIG grants in 2002), the formulas were weighted so that districts with higher percentages (or numbers) of economically disadvantaged children received more funds. The report to Congress showed that the Targeted and EFIG mathematical formulas successfully allocate more money per eligible child to students in the poorest districts, so much so, that the sum of the four programs that comprise Title I shows an overall higher allocation of funding per child to children in the poorest districts.

The initial Cares Act provided critically needed funding that will help America’s students who are reeling from the impacts of shuttered schools across the country.

In this light, allocating funding in direct proportion to Title I funding formula in the first Cares Act was a good first step in providing relief. As Congress considers and begins work on a fourth stimulus package, it needs to focus on schools that serve the highest proportion of students with the most needs.

But there is no need to reinvent the wheel. The formulas they need are already in place.