Congress’s debate about rewriting the nation’s main education law has featured high-profile disagreements over testing, vouchers and school accountability, but there is another issue that has just as much potential to derail the legislation: Money.
A forthcoming amendment from Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) would change the formula used to allocate Title I funds, a move that would create big winners and losers among the states.
Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia would gain Title I dollars, which are meant to educate poor children. But that leaves 14 states that would see cuts, including big losers New York (whose districts would lose $310 million), Illinois ($188 million) and Pennsylvania ($120 million).
“Every county in my state will lose money,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), whose state stands to lose about $40 million per year, a 20 percent cut. Mikulski, speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday, said she plans to vote in favor of rewriting the No Child Left Behind law — unless it includes the Burr amendment.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), whose state stands to lose $22 million, called the Burr amendment a “poison pill” that could pose a real threat to the underlying legislation, which he supports. “An amendment like that, if it passed, it could knock the whole thing sideways,” Kaine said in an interview. “Other than that, I feel really good about this bill getting out of the Senate.”
The federal government sends about $14 billion in Title I funds to the nation’s schools, doled out via a complicated set of formulas that favors states with large populations and wealthy states that spend a lot on education. Rural states, and states with smaller populations, tend to receive less on a per-pupil basis.
Burr’s amendment would attempt to correct for that bias and would streamline the current set of four Title I formulas into one simpler formula. It essentially would dole out money based on the number of poor children multiplied by the national average of the cost to educate that child.
Many states in the South and West would see an infusion of federal dollars: Texas would get an additional $192 million; California $118 million; and Florida $106 million. North Carolina, Burr’s home state, would get an additional $72 million.
Many other states would receive smaller amounts that comprise a significant increase compared to what they get now: Utah would get an extra $17 million, an increase of 19 percent; Oklahoma would get an extra $30 million, also an increase of 19 percent; and Alabama would get an extra $37 million, an increase of nearly 17 percent.
About two-thirds of the nation’s public schools receive Title I dollars, according to the Center for American Progress.
Proponents of the proposal argue that their schools and their students have been shortchanged for decades, forced to make do with less simply because of arbitrary and arcane formulas.
But it’s almost always difficult for Congress to tweak funding formulas because changes produce such clear losers. Every school could use more resources, and no politician wants to have to explain why their states’ schools are losing money.
Sen. Dick Durbin (R-Ill.) said Wednesday on the Senate floor that he would fight the amendment. It would trigger a 28 percent cut to federal Title I funds in his state; Chicago public schools, which serves about 400,000 children, would lose $68 million.
“I don’t know what procedural tools are available to us, but when it comes to an amendment that takes that kind of money away from critically important school districts in my state, I am going to use every tool in the box to stop this from coming to the floor and passing,” Durbin said. “There is just too much at stake.”
No Child Left Behind expired in 2007, but Congress has been unable to agree on how to revise it. Now lawmakers are closer than ever to reaching a deal: The House passed GOP legislation on Wednesday, and the Senate is in the middle of debating its own bipartisan version.
Burr is expected to introduce his amendment on the Senate floor next week.