An Obama administration proposal to ensure adequate resources for poor children in the nation’s schools has triggered a backlash on Capitol Hill and among the nation’s K-12 superintendents, who say that the U.S. Education Department is trying to unilaterally — and illegally — rewrite the nation’s main federal education law.
The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service on Wednesday lent credence to that criticism, writing that the department’s proposal seems to conflict with language in the law and “appears to go beyond what would be required under a plain language reading of the statute.”
At issue is how thousands of school districts prove that they are using $15 billion in federal Title I dollars to provide extra help for poor children in tens of thousands of schools nationwide. Federal law says that school districts must spend the money in a way that provides extra help to poor children — that it not be used to provide basic educational services — and requires that Title I schools have comparable services to those in wealthier schools in the same district. School districts are not allowed to underfund schools in poor neighborhoods and then use the federal dollars to fill in the hole.
But because high-poverty schools often spend fewer dollars per student — sometimes thousands of dollars — the Education Department has proposed a new rule to force districts to close the gap first. School districts would have to show that they are spending enough on poorer schools before they receive the federal dollars.
Department officials believe they have not only the legal authority, but the legal obligation, to enforce that rule.
“The entire purpose of Title I funds is to truly provide the additional resources necessary to ensure that students in high poverty schools have access to equitable educational opportunity,” spokeswoman Raymonde Charles said in a statement. “If schools are being shortchanged before the federal dollars arrive, then those dollars are not supplemental.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), one of the chief architects of the new education law, is urging states to sue if the administration moves forward with the plan, arguing that it would interfere with the law’s specific intent of shifting power from Washington to state and local school officials.
“This is an intolerable situation,” Alexander said on the Senate floor. “As soon as the president himself signs the law, they start rewriting it over in his own department.”
Some local education officials say that the Education Department is not only overstepping its legal authority but also pushing a plan that would cause chaos in thousands of schools nationwide, including by forcing large numbers of teachers to transfer to new buildings.
“It is going to wreak havoc in any district that has Title I schools,” said Des Moines Superintendent Thomas Ahart. “There’s just no way that we won’t be completely disrupting our entire system to comply with this rule that, by the way, will not result in improved results for kids.”
Obama administration officials say that they are seeking to uphold the civil rights intent of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed into law with bipartisan support last year.
This week a group of teachers affiliated with TeachPlus, a teacher leadership organization, met with Education Secretary John King Jr. and urged him not to back down. They also delivered a letter bearing that message, signed by more than 600 teachers who work in high-poverty schools.
“This is a civil rights issue, and no one is voluntarily stepping up to hand over their dollars to our students of need,” Baltimore teacher Rebecca Belleville told King this week. “Unless that’s explicit from the U.S. government . . . it’s just not going to happen.”
School districts spend most of their money on people, and one of the proposal’s biggest impacts would be on how teachers are distributed.
Many districts allocate positions equitably across schools, so all schools have the same teacher-student ratio before they receive federal aid. But that doesn’t mean that districts are spending equally in all schools: The neediest schools tend to employ teachers with less experience than more affluent schools, and less-experienced teachers earn lower salaries.
Under the Obama administration’s proposal, school districts would have to calculate what they actually spend on teacher salaries in each separate school and would for the first time have to rectify gaps in spending between Title I and non-Title I schools.
Those who oppose that plan say that it contradicts a separate provision in the law that prohibits the Education Department from mandating “equalized spending.”
Another problem, they say, is that it is unworkable in practice.
Ahart, the Des Moines superintendent, said there are few, if any, school districts that would have enough cash in reserve to bolster spending in Title I schools to the level that would be required.
Alvin Wilbanks, the superintendent of schools in Gwinnett County, Ga., said it would be a nightmare to balance teacher salaries among schools whose employees are always changing.
Imagine a veteran teacher who retires after 30 years and is replaced by a new teacher, creating a swing of $35,000 to $45,000, he said. It would create an imbalance that would be tough to fix without shuffling teachers among buildings. He said that forcing teachers to move could violate union contracts in some districts and could boost teacher turnover, destabilizing schools.
“I have no problem with giving incentives to teachers who work in schools that are hard to staff, but you can’t move people around,” Wilbanks said. “This is America.”
Both superintendents said there is no clear link, in their experience, between a teacher’s salary and their effectiveness in the classroom.
Ahart and Wilbanks were among more than two dozen people the Education Department tasked with reaching consensus on key regulations related to the new education law, part of a typical process after new laws pass. The committee — which included representatives from the Education Department, as well as parents, teachers, principals and members of the civil rights and business communities — failed to agree on the Title I spending proposal that the department put forward.
That leaves the Education Department in the driver’s seat for now, responsible for writing the rule itself. The department is expected to release its draft version in coming weeks to be able to accept public comment and publish a final rule before Obama leaves office.
Nine Senate Democrats endorsed the department’s approach. So has the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, writing in a letter last month that “the federal government must no longer be expected to subsidize the inequitable funding of public schools serving high numbers of low-income students.”
But opponents of the department’s position represent a broad coalition that doesn’t always agree, including organizations representing the nation’s governors, state education chiefs, school boards and superintendents, as well as the two largest teachers unions.
Donna Harris-Aikens, director of education policy for the National Education Association, said that the department was seeking to establish a strict definition of compliance, contradicting the law’s call for greater flexibility for districts and states. “That’s just not the spirit of the statute,” she said.
Alexander, who chairs the Senate education committee, said he will use the appropriations process and every other tool at his disposal to ensure that the department cannot carry out its plan.
“They came up with a scheme that would violate the law,” he said. “I’m not going to put up with it.”