In the world of education you hear the phrase “Title I” thrown around a lot, especially with regards to funding, but what is it?
Title I refers to the first part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. This bill was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on April 9, 1965. It was a linchpin in his War on Poverty and one of his key Great Society programs, so named because of a speech he gave at Ohio University in 1964 in which he called for a “Great Society…where no child will go unfed and no youngster will go unschooled.”
Noble goals, to be sure. Johnson had cut his teeth as a freshman Congressman in the 1930s at the height of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The belief that government could solve society’s problems with the stroke of a pen and millions of dollars in funds was powerful in those days, and Johnson carried this belief with him to the White House thirty years later.
Has the law worked? You open up a whole can of worms by even posing that question, but now that we’ve had more than 50 years of Title I results, it’s worth taking a look.
First, there’s the language of the original law. The very first line of the ESEA states that it’s an act “To strengthen and improve educational quality and educational opportunities in the Nation’s elementary and secondary schools.” And Title I of that law specifically offers “Financial assistance to local educational agencies for the education of children of low income families”.
Local educational agencies are school boards. Nearly every school district in the country receives some Title I funds, even wealthy districts. This is because they are intended to serve students that receive free and reduced-price lunches, and only students whose family income is at or near the federal poverty level can qualify (this year, that level is $24,600 for a family of four). Even the wealthiest districts have a few students who live at the poverty level, so they receive “targeted” funds that are supposed to be spent on these students.
Schools in which more than 40% of the student body is poor get additional Title I money known as “schoolwide” funds. Since this is the majority of Title I funding, urban principals will actually recruit poor students to attend their schools so they don’t lose this money. There is a special disincentive to never lose Title I standing because that means less revenue and more accusations that these schools are becoming “gentrified.” In fact, if more local parents end up sending their kids to a school that was once considered mediocre and has since turned its performance around – something we used to call success – they are often accused of pushing poor kids out and making it too expensive for low-income families to live there.
Nevertheless, in 2017 the federal government distributed $15.4 billion in Title I funds to all fifty states and the District of Columbia. Did this money produce results?
Let’s take a local example from my home state of Colorado. In 2016 our state received $142,901,138 in Title I money. Denver Public Schools alone got $29,622,309 of that.
The results? English Language Arts scores among Colorado students in grades 3 through 9 improved an average of 2%. In math that number was .2%. At this rate it will take 20 years to bring the entire state into the acceptable range for Language Arts (80%+ proficiency) and 250 years to reach the same level in math!!!
Of course, the majority of any state’s education funding comes from local sources, and once that money enters the state budget it becomes “fungible” – that is, you’re not sure if the dollars come from the feds or the state. This money is supposed to be kept separate so it can be accounted for, but this is all but impossible since it is often used to hire extra teachers (who are state employees) or buy new curriculum (purchased with district funds).
However, there is one way to keep this money separate and accounted for: allow outside parties to bid on it.
Since local school boards have control over how Title I money is spent, each district can invite private education companies to bid on that money, announce how they’re going to use it, and be held accountable for the results every year.
Full disclosure: we are one of those private education companies and this is exactly what we are trying to do in school districts across Colorado.
If we can move the needle significantly with reading and writing scores, and another company can do the same with math scores, why not give us the money and let us prove it? If we fail, the district can fire us and find somebody better.
And this doesn’t just apply to academic standards. Title I money should be used for vocational training as well. The Homebuilder’s Association in Colorado has an outstanding program where students can actually build a house on rollers in the parking lot of a high school and learn how to frame, plumb, tin, and pull wire. Once it’s finished, that house is transported to an actual development where it is put on a foundation and sold to an actual homeowner.
What have school boards got to lose? It sure beats hanging around until 2268 to see if math scores go up.