As schools nationwide look ahead to the start of the 2021-22 school year and spend federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, there’s a group of students at risk of being overlooked: those who didn’t show up in public schools last year. In most states, these missing students outnumber the largest school districts.
Michigan is no exception, where Alex Spurrier argues that its public schools, along with other states and communities across the country, must identify and meet the needs of missing students this fall:
“In Michigan, more than 61,000 students didn’t enroll in public school between 2019-20 and 2020-21. That’s more students than make up Detroit Public Schools. And Michigan isn’t alone: Washington State saw enrollment declines of 55,000 students — more than students enrolled in Seattle Public Schools. Maine, Missouri and Vermont also have total enrollment drops greater than their largest school district. In seven other states, the size of the enrollment drop was only eclipsed by the largest school district.
The scale of disruption to children, families and school communities is massive. It’s also widely dispersed within each state, which can obscure the magnitude. Policymakers must respond to the staggering but disparate problem of enrollment declines.”
Will leaders act urgently to meet missing students’ needs, even as everyone is exhausted and just wants a return to normal?
Support local journalism by reading more from Alex Spurrier’s op-ed featured in The Detroit News here.
President Biden’s Fiscal Year 2022 budget proposes $20 billion in funding for a new Title I Equity Grants program that has the potential to incentivize changes to school funding systems, with a primary goal of improving equity and driving resources to support students with the greatest needs. Eligible school districts and charter schools (local education agencies, or LEAs) receiving these funds can use them to address four priority areas:
Address long-standing disparities between under-resourced school districts and their wealthier counterparts by providing meaningful incentives to examine and address inequalities in school funding systems.
Ensure that teachers at Title I schools are paid competitively.
Increase preparation for, access to, and success in rigorous coursework.
Expand access to high-quality preschool for underserved children and families.
The first priority area focuses on funding equity, which means ensuring that districts and schools direct more resources to the students who need them the most. The Biden administration is looking to use the relatively small pot of federal education funds (as a share of total school funding) to push greater equity in the much larger pot of state and local school funding systems (which generate and distribute about 90% of total money for schools). Just as a small lever can move a large object, a targeted funding program could have an outsized impact with the right incentives. And that’s the potential of this ambitious proposal. But there’s still a lot to figure out, if and when this new program comes to fruition.
Title I is one of the largest federal funding streams for K-12 education and is primarily directed by a formula for schools and districts serving high proportions of low-income students to provide supplemental educational supports. Biden’s proposal would not change the structure or formula for Title I. Instead, it would create a new grant program on top of current Title I structures. This new grant would rely on a different allocation formula that targets a greater share of funds to LEAs with the greatest concentrations of poverty. This is significant, because it might signal a step towards changing the Title I formula as a whole.
The FY22 budget proposal is still in its early stages and requires congressional approval and a lot more work to iron out details. If this proposal is ultimately implemented, four key questions that advocates nationwide should be asking include:
1. Will recipients of these funds need to address all four priorities, or can they pick and choose?
School funding reform is challenging work that often requires a significant investment of political and financial capital. If states can opt to apply funds to other priorities that may be relatively easier to implement, what’s the incentive to engage in broad, meaningful funding reform?
2. What are the expectations for the state-level School Funding Equity Commissions and the plans they develop? The proposal includes allocating $50 million to voluntary School Funding Equity Commissions. These state commissions would measure gaps in funding equity and adequacy, develop plans to address those gaps, and report progress on the milestones and metrics set forth in those plans. However, it’s not clear if the commissions are focused on allocations of funding through state funding formulas or the allocation of funds from districts out to schools at the local level, or both? These two processes are typically separate and have different equity challenges and potential remedies. Both allocation structures can force equity, and both can be politically and practically complex.
3. How do the school-level reporting requirements relate to similar requirements under current federal law? Does the Title I Equity Grants program represent a change to those provisions? If not, what does this FY22 proposal intend to achieve? The process of defining a common definition of per pupil expenditure at the LEA or school level is more complex than it may sound on its face. Given that a similar provision aimed at promoting transparency regarding school-level spending already exists in law, it’s not clear what this proposal aims to achieve that’s different. Transparency can be a powerful tool for equity, but not if adding a new calculation muddies an already poorly understood concept.
4. Finally, how will the Title I Equity Grants program ensure that state plans for funding equity are effective for students with the greatest needs? Some reporting language indicates that states will need to, “Demonstrate progress in improving the equity and adequacy of their funding systems to be eligible for future increases in funding.” Does that mean that future Title I allocations will include incentives for demonstrated progress toward equity (and adequacy) goals? Is this a carrot or a stick, how much funding might be somehow contingent, and how will “progress” be defined — especially to ensure that more funding is directed to student groups who need additional resources, including students with disabilities and English language learners?
The Biden administration’s Title I Equity Grants program brings welcome attention to a foundational issue for educational equity — ensuring that students who need the most resources receive them. While the FY22 proposal faces significant congressional and administrative hurdles, it highlights the need to address funding inequities in state and school district spending plans. Ultimately, the proposal has the potential to be an effective lever for change if it can set up meaningful incentives for states and districts and define success through prioritizing the needs of our most marginalized students.
The influx of federal COVID-19 recovery funding, now in the billions of dollars, is an opportunity for states and districts to not only create a more diverse teacher workforce, but also an environment where teachers of color can thrive and remain in the classroom. As states submit their recovery spending plans to the U.S. Department of Education, they have a chance to set this in motion through innovative recruitment and retention strategies.
While the two experts don’t always agree, they bring a wealth of knowledge and mutual respect to a difficult, nuanced, and timely conversation. For more reflections in the Eduwonk CRT series, click here.
Sharif El-Mekki is founder and CEO of The Center for Black Educator Development. Ian Rowe is the founder and CEO of Vertex Partnership Academies and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 includes $123 billion to K-12 education through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund and $39 billion for higher education through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund.
Ahead of the upcoming 2021-22 school year, state and local education officials nationwide are beginning to spend funds on a wide range of programs in K-12 and postsecondary education.
“Every dollar spent on bonus payments to address a phantom teacher retention problem is a dollar that won’t go toward supporting the needs of the kids who attend JCPS schools — a mistake JCPS is making 75 million times over. Should JCPS’ limited education recovery funding really be used to further expand economic and racial inequality in our city?
A more targeted retention bonus program could have been modeled after successful efforts to retain effective educators in high-needs schools. Or it could have focused on specific positions for which vacancies are an issue, such as custodial and food service positions. Instead, most of this blanket windfall of cash will end up subsidizing a relatively affluent segment of our community that didn’t once have to worry about their next paycheck — something few families can relate to in a district where 66% of students are economically disadvantaged.”
Read more from Alex Spurrier’s recent Louisville Courier-Journal op-ed,here.