“If you look at the numbers, it’s a pretty devastating portrait of what this thing might do,” Duncan said Monday during a breakfast meeting with reporters. “It simply doesn’t make sense.”
Duncan was criticizing the Student Success Act, which passed out of committee earlier this month without a single vote from Democrats. The full House is expected to vote on the bill Friday.
At issue is how the federal government allocates funds to help low-income children. Currently, those dollars are doled out via a formula that sends more money to school districts with high concentrations of poor children. House Republicans are pushing something called “Title I portability,” a wonky term for allowing federal dollars to flow to poor children wherever they are individually enrolled.
That means that an affluent school with a few poor children, which doesn’t currently receive any Title I dollars, would receive a small sum. It also means that if a poor child leaves a high-poverty school and enrolls in a more affluent one, the federal money would follow the student to the new school.
The provision would apply only to public schools, but many Democrats see it as a first step toward federal vouchers that would allow students to use federal funding for private school enrollment. They also say that the new approach would leave the neediest schools without the resources they require.
For example, Detroit — where more than half of students are poor and more than 80 percent are black — would lose $265 million during the next six years, according to the Education Department’s analysis. Los Angeles, which is 31 percent poor and 74 percent Hispanic, stands to lose $782 million.
The Education Department’s analysis focuses only on districts that would lose out under Title I portability. Department officials said those dollars would flow to wealthier districts:
“Based on our analysis of FY14 data and what would have happened if those dollars were allocated under the Republican’s Title I portability proposal, the highest-poverty districts across the nation would have lost an estimated total of about $700 million in the first year of implementation,” department officials said in a statement. “Two thirds of that money would have been redirected to the lowest-poverty districts (0 to 15 percent poverty) and the remaining third would have gone to districts with 15-25 percent poverty.”
The White House released a similar report attacking Title I portability earlier this month. Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the House education committee, said in response to the White House report that his bill would make Title I portability an option for states, not a requirement.
“Over the last six years, the Obama administration has dictated national education policy from the U.S. Department of Education,” Kline said in a statement at the time. “The White House is using scare tactics and budget gimmicks to kill K-12 education reform, because they know a new law will lead to less control in the hands of Washington bureaucrats and more control in the hands of parents and education leaders.”
The Senate is also trying to write a new version of No Child Left Behind. An initial draft authored by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the education committee, included Title I portability. But unlike in the House, top Senate Republicans and Democrats are now trying to work together to hammer out a bipartisan bill. It’s not clear whether Title I portability will be included in the next draft.
There are plenty of other sticking points besides Title I portability. Duncan emphasized Monday that he wants to see a significant new investment in early childhood education and continued investment in competitive grants for innovation, both of which are missing from the House bill. And though the House bill would continue annual standardized testing, which Duncan favors, it also would strip the federal Education Department of much of its current power, giving states far more latitude to decide how to define and intervene in struggling schools.
“As of today, this isn’t something we could support,” Duncan said.
He declined to say what policies would trigger a presidential veto. “We are so far apart on so many issues,” he said.
No Child Left Behind expired in 2007 and Congress has been unable to reach a deal to revise it, even though the law is widely considered to be broken and unworkable. The law’s failure has helped make Duncan an unusually powerful education secretary: With the promise of waivers from the most onerous provisions of No Child Left Behind, he has been able to push states to make rapid and sweeping changes to their academic standards, teacher evaluations and other key policies.
If Congress reaches a deal, then Duncan is likely to lose much of that influence. If Congress fails, then Duncan stays in control. Wouldn’t the Education Secretary like to stay in the driver’s seat?
“That was never the goal,” Duncan said Monday. “The goal was to fix the law for kids in 50 states and have clarity. We stepped into a leadership void, we stepped into dysfunction, because kids and teachers were being hurt. And we’ve done the best job we can. I’m sure we’ve done it imperfectly. I actually think we’ve done a pretty darn good job with it.”
“We feel good about that. I would feel much much much better if we fixed the law in a bipartisan way for the nation.”