Category Archives: Federal Education Policy

Four Questions About the Biden Administration’s Title I Equity Grants Program

Photo courtesy of Aaron Kittredge for Pexels

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. 

A Window of Opportunity to Create a Diverse Teacher Workforce

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

The racial imbalance between U.S. students and their teachers is stark: 80% of all K-12 teachers identify as white, while more than half of students identify as students of color. The lack of teacher diversity presents the field with an urgent problem, but one that states and districts can address right now.

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. 

In Window of Opportunity: How States and Localities Can Use Federal Rescue Plan Dollars to Diversify Their Teacher Workforce, Andy Rotherham and I outline a range of policies and solutions that states and districts can implement with federal funds to diversify teachers in the classroom. 

Now is the time to build a high-quality teacher corps that reflects the tapestry of America. Let’s not let this opportunity slip away.

Opinion: K-12 Schools Should Focus Federal Recovery Funds on Equitable Initiatives to Support Students

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

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. 

Bellwether’s Alex Spurrier argues that Louisville, Kentucky’s Jefferson County Public School system is making a $75 million mistake by using pandemic relief funds to give every permanent district employee a $5,000 bonus.

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.

Rethinking School Safety for Students of Color: A Note on Nuance in COVID-19 Recovery Efforts

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Public education has historically been framed as an equalizing force in American society, as many students and families rely on schools for necessities and opportunities for social mobility. COVID-19 brought into stark relief just how much schools serve as community hubs that provide families with much-needed resources.

Now, as the pandemic begins to ebb, some schools are grappling with the question of when and how to reopen. Proponents of prioritizing live instruction for all students point out that many students particularly systemically marginalized children experienced greater difficulty accessing necessities such as food and health care during the pandemic. Mental health concerns were also exacerbated amid school closures. 

At the same time, these realities coexist with another, less comfortable truth: American educational institutions are a deep well of trauma and a central source of exposure to institutional racism, particularly for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students of color.

Long before the pandemic, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students were deeply affected by racism in education spaces through racial bias in student discipline, surveillance and policing associated with the school-to-prison-pipeline, and lack of access to high-quality teachers, curriculum, and gifted programs. Now, thanks to virtual instruction, students of color no longer have to go into a school building to be exposed to racial bias and academic violence. Instead, well-intentioned educators and schools can harm, police, and surveil these students and their families in the privacy of their homes. For example, a Black male student with ADHD was suspended for “bringing a facsimile of a firearm” to school, even though he was at home using a video conferencing platform for online instruction. Black students have consistently been disproportionately suspended and expelled at higher rates than their white counterparts, even during remote instruction.

So, while it is true that schools play a critical role in serving communities, it is also true that sending students of color back into those same environments without working to dismantle institutional racism can actively harm them. What does the American education system owe students of color? And what opportunities has the pandemic created to ensure that they not only survive, but thrive

COVID-19 relief plans are a promising start. The American Rescue Plan Act is the latest of three federal relief funds, after the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act and the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, dedicated to education. With $123 billion allocated to K-12 schools through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, and $39 billion for higher education, ARP provides an opportunity for state education officials and school leaders to fundamentally reshape the U.S. education landscape in three key ways:

1. Direct federal funds to address inequities in K-12 school building conditions

Local education agencies should use ESSER funds to address operational needs, such as facility repairs to improve ventilation and school air quality. Researchers have long documented that inequities in school building conditions contribute to the environmental racism and health disparities communities of color experience (e.g., poor ventilation, higher rates of asthma). Due to racial inequities in housing and school funding, students of color disproportionately attend underfunded schools with poor building conditions that are located near sources of pollution, which can negatively impact their health and educational outcomes.

2. Fund mental health services to students of color

Students of color are disproportionately exposed to mental health risk factors such as racism, poverty, food insecurity, and lack of access to health care. These risk factors have only been heightened during the pandemic and are a pressing issue for Black students in particular. According to a report from the Congressional Black Caucus, suicide is the third leading cause of death for Black youth aged 15 to 19, and Black youth under age 13 are twice as likely to die by suicide than their white counterparts. Research also indicates that the rate of suicide death among Black youth is increasing faster than that of any other racial/ethnic group. ESSER funds provide a clear path forward to better support mental health services to students of color.

3. Upend the status quo

In addition to ESSER funds, the Biden administration has requested a $20 billion increase in its FY2022 budget to invest in grants for Title I schools, promoting equity more broadly. Given the deep history of inequitable funding and spending in K-12 education, states should channel broad applicability into targeted funds for underserved communities of color. If states revert to the status quo funding dissemination mechanisms, or focus spending on the urgency of the present without regard for the broader socio-historical context of educational inequity, they will waste this once-in-a-lifetime chance to ensure that our public education system equitably serves all students. 

We have a unique opportunity to right inestimable wrongs by using ARP, CRRSA, and CARES Act funds to reimagine education and center voices of the systemically marginalized. These voices hold a wealth of knowledge about what they need to thrive and how to eliminate educational inequity. Will we listen?

We’ve been working closely with federally funded research and technical assistance centers to identify best practices and strategies to promote racial equity in education throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Keep an eye out for additional publications on this topic from Bellwether and the National Comprehensive Center’s Capacity Building Team.

Ebony Lambert, Ph.D., is a senior analyst at Bellwether Education Partners, where her work integrates education, psychology, and health into research, evaluation, and capacity-building. She holds a doctorate in health psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University.

A Teacher’s Perspective on Testing in a Pandemic (and Beyond)

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages.

When the Biden administration announced required state standardized testing this spring, I was angry. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. A vast majority of students at the charter school I teach at in Boston plan to stay remote the rest of the year. What would testing look like in this context? And what could the results tell us?  

Even pre-pandemic, in my five years as a high school teacher in Massachusetts and North Carolina, state tests were used for labeling schools and little else. Pressure the tests created affected my approach to teaching in ways that didn’t always serve my students. I love algebra and, in my experience, it’s much more engaging when taught experientially. But I saw a tradeoff between the time experiential lessons take and my ability to cover the total volume of material I knew my students were likely to encounter on state tests. I never received detailed student achievement reports for my current class or last year’s data, meaning that state test results didn’t help to inform differentiation in the classroom. To ensure that I provided my students with the support they needed, I relied heavily on formative quizzes and “exit ticket” assessments, but having access to student achievement reports would have exposed gaps that existed before students stepped into my classroom. 

My initial anger subsided as I read more about the arguments for and against testing this spring. An opportunity exists for systemic change thanks to flexibility the Biden administration provides states in how they use test scores. Instead of labeling schools, scores can potentially inform how states and districts spend $123 billion in K-12 funds from the federal American Rescue Plan Act stimulus package. These funds can benefit all students, especially those often left out of the conversation, like students in foster care or the juvenile legal system.

Flexibility can better enable 2020-21 test data to be used productively for students and schools, creating a reset opportunity from the frustrating status quo. In order for leaders and administrators to use the data to equitably support all students, change must follow the intent in five key ways:

Tests should be scored, with reports in teachers’ and families’ inboxes, by mid-summer

Teachers begin planning for the upcoming school year over the summer, often hoping to spiral in content that needs to be remediated the very first week of school. In my experience, reports from state tests are typically not released until several weeks into the school year. Providing detailed score reports to teachers earlier, on both their incoming students and last year’s class, would allow for more practical application of test scores in instruction.

The process of sharing test data across relevant agencies should be smoother

Schools are not the only organizations that can use test data to support students. Other agencies, such as the foster care system and family support services, could use group-level data, or individual student data with appropriate privacy safeguards, to better support students outside of school. But not every state makes this kind of data sharing transparent, consistent, and student-centered. If teachers aren’t getting this data in practice, it’s doubtful that other adults in children’s lives are getting the information they need. Even the fact that a student missed testing might be useful for a social worker or another service provider to know. If other agencies are aware that a child they work with did not attend tests, they can work with the family on a back-to-school preparation plan for the fall.

School leaders and administrators should identify and support students missing from testing

The Biden administration relaxed participation requirements to account for remote schooling and ongoing COVID-19 uncertainty. Education leaders and analysts should consider which populations of students may be absent from testing this year and the potential implications for interpreting results. Some students who aren’t present for testing may need additional support and remediation. Populations with less access to remote learning include students experiencing homelessness, students living in poverty, and students living in multigenerational households. Statistically, these students are more likely to be children of color — a lack of urgency in school administration supports may widen opportunity gaps. 

Test results should inform how schools and districts spend federal stimulus funds

Districts and schools with widening opportunity gaps based on this year’s tests should shape their stimulus spending plans to address those results with research-backed interventions and improvement plans. Identifying populations most in need of support in these schools, and targeting resources accordingly, is critical. For example, if high schoolers underperformed in math, additional funding could go towards hiring in-school math tutors for students in need of additional learning support. 

Academics shouldn’t be the sole focus 

Academic performance is essential. As an algebra teacher, I want to know that my students are leaving my class ready to take on more advanced mathematical analyses. But I also want my students to get more from school than what is reflected in the state standards: I want them to feel safe, engage in deeper thinking, learn how to communicate with their classmates, and build a love of learning. Many students are struggling right now with the disruptions, trauma, and isolation the past year has brought. Remote learning has limited students’ social interaction and, for many, impeded their sense of safety and security. In addition to heeding what we can learn from state standardized tests, administrators should plan for interventions that support and serve students’ mental health and social-emotional needs. 

I’ve moved on from my initial anger at state testing this year and have embraced a wait-and-see mindset. It will be interesting to see whether this year’s results will have a meaningful positive effect on my students and/or signal larger culture shifts around state standardized tests in the long run. Regardless, the most urgent priority for educators and school administrators should be marshalling all resources and information at their disposal to support all students in recovering lost instructional time due to the pandemic. 


Kate Keller completed a project internship at Bellwether Education Partners this spring focused on
educational continuity. She has taught high school for five years and is pursuing her Master’s degree in Human Development and Psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.