Category Archives: Politics of Education

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. 

From Pandemic to Progress: Eight Bellwether briefs set long-term visions for education policy and practice

Today, we and several of our Bellwether colleagues released From Pandemic to Progress: Eight Education Pathways for COVID-19 Recovery, making the case for the the education sector to recenter and rebuild after the disruptions caused by COVID-19. At some point — hopefully soon — vaccines will become broadly available and students and teachers everywhere will return to full-time, in-person learning. School, system, and sector leaders will pause and take a breath. Then they quickly will turn their attention back to many of the questions that have simmered in the background for the past year, but that are quickly coming back to a boil.

In the wake of COVID-19, leaders and policymakers will need ambitious but achievable pathways to re-engage in complex policy questions and rebuild education. From Pandemic to Progress draws on the breadth of Bellwether’s expertise and a diversity of viewpoints across our team in a series of briefs — each with a take on what we will need in the years ahead to create a sector that can provide students with the high-quality education and supports they need and deserve to be successful.

Here are the issues and areas where we believe the sector should not go back to normal:

Redesigning Accountability: Bonnie O’Keefe grounds the debates on assessment and accountability back in core principles and practicalities. She doubles down on the need for transparent data and subgroup reporting, but also challenges policymakers to create systems that are aligned to the realities of classroom instruction and school-based decision making.

Supporting a Diverse Choice Ecosystem From the Bottom Up: Alex Spurrier lays out a vision for fostering choice and enabling a diversity of educational approaches, by seeding consortia of assessments, similar to Advanced Placement, that ensure the quality but not the homogeneity of options.

Prioritizing Equity in School Funding: Jennifer O’Neal Schiess pinpoints the inequities in school funding and explains why it should be decoupled from the real estate market, with local property taxes playing a minimal or vastly different role in the funding of schools.

Establishing Coherent Systems for Vulnerable Students: Hailly T.N. Korman and Melissa Steel King stay laser-focused on students who have experienced homelessness, foster care, pregnancy, or other disruptions to their education and call on public agencies to address the confusing fragmentation of social services so students can receive comprehensive and streamlined support.

Creating an Institute for Education Improvement: Allison Crean Davis makes a case for changing the way we change, calling for a standalone entity that can champion and support the education sector in rigorous, data-driven approaches to continuous improvement.

Diversifying the Teacher Workforce: Indira Dammu reminds us of the research that links a diverse teacher workforce to improved student outcomes, and makes recommendations for how policymakers can support the recruitment and retention of teachers of color.

Building on the Charter Sector’s Many Paths to Impact: Juliet Squire acknowledges headwinds facing charter school growth, but reminds policymakers and practitioners of the many ways — beyond increasing enrollment — that charter schools can expand their impact.

Bringing Home-Based Child Care Providers Into the Fold: Ashley LiBetti shines a spotlight on the critical role that home-based child care providers play in caring for the country’s youngest children, a role that the pandemic further dramatized; she makes the case for policies that address the important role that home-based child care plays in the early childhood ecosystem.

Whether addressing a long-standing issue that has shaped the education reform debates for decades, or an issue that has yet to garner the attention it deserves, each brief lays out a long-term vision for success and pathways to get there.

The education sector is far too familiar with the cycle of faddish policies and knee-jerk reactions when reforms don’t immediately produce increases in student proficiency. And certainly the last year has rightfully concentrated attention and resources on addressing the most urgent and basic student needs. But when the crisis subsides, education policymakers and practitioners will need a point on the horizon to aim for. We hope these briefs inspire and inform long-term visions for serving America’s kids.

 

 

Three Reasons to Move School Board Elections to November

Last week’s election was a referendum on the Trump Administration, but it wasn’t a referendum on how well schools have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s because three out of every four states hold school board elections “off-cycle,” meaning they do not take place at the same time as other state and federal elections. 

The effect is dismal voter turnout. Recent estimates from the National School Boards Association place voter turnout in school board elections between 5 and 10 percent (compared to around 60 percent for presidential elections). Now, while families are acutely aware of how district governance affects their schools and their children, it’s time to move school board elections to the first Tuesday in November. 

First, moving school board elections to be held alongside other major elections could dramatically increase voter turnout. It’s commonly known that voter turnout for midterm elections is far lower than it is during presidential election years. Turnout for off-cycle elections is even lower. This year’s election provided a natural experiment in Dallas, where school board elections are typically held in the spring but were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They were instead held on Election Day last week. In May 2019, the off-cycle election for three seats on the Dallas school board garnered just 14,000 votes; last week, the election for two seats on the board garnered 86,000 votes, an increase of over 500 percent. 

Second, moving school board elections on cycle would balance out the interest groups most likely to organize and participate when an election is held off-cycle. Sarah Anzia’s research on election timing and turnout substantiates the idea that off-cycle elections are dominated by “politically motivated minorities” such as teachers unions. Consider the case of Los Angeles Unified School District. The district held its first on-cycle elections for two school board seats last week, in which charter school proponents challenged candidates supported by the teachers unions. Regardless of how one feels about charter schools or teachers unions, there’s no doubt the election generated significant attention and debate on an important question. Enormous energy — and money — went into an election with historic turnout. According to the LAist, the 243,000 ballots cast in the race for the District 3 school board seat are almost as many as all of the ballots cast for the same seat between 2003 and 2015. 

Finally, increasing voter turnout can increase the alignment between voter demographics and the demographics of students being served. Research from The Annenberg Institute at Brown University confirms that the demographics of voters are often very different from the demographics of the district’s students. On-cycle elections could help mitigate this phenomenon. Consider Gwinnett County where voters last week elected two African American women and displaced two white women, in an increasingly racially diverse district of suburban Atlanta. Would this have happened if elections were off-cycle and candidates could not ride the wave of increased voter participation in the African American community? On-cycle elections can help ensure that as a community changes, their school board changes with it. 

The argument for off-cycle elections has been that they insulate school board elections from the partisan politics that define elections for state and federal offices. But politics is inevitable in any democratic process, and the timing of elections is a political decision in itself. As the country struggles to get students back into school, and back to learning, surely school boards would benefit from more debate and scrutiny — not less.

What Did Joe Biden’s Coalition Look Like? What Does it Mean for Education?

As I write this, we’re not done counting votes in several key states, including Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. But if current trends hold, Joe Biden appears likely to become our 46th President.

What’s astounding is his coalition of voters. According to a review of exit polls, Biden performed better than Hillary Clinton did in 2016 among white men, but performed worse among white women, Black women, Black men, Latina women, and Latino men. See the graphic below via CNN:

Back in August, Alex Spurrier and I warned that Joe Biden’s campaign platform overlooked effective education policies that Black and Hispanic voters tended to support. While the two things may or may not be related, it’s striking that Biden did worse among non-white voters, collectively, than any Democrat since JFK in 1960.

As someone who worked in the Obama Administration, it’s hard for me to look at President Trump’s record and understand how he could increase his support among Black and Hispanic voters. But somehow he did.

Readers of this blog will also have to grapple with the fact that education itself has been politicized over the last four years. In 2016, Trump won among voters without a college degree. In response, pollsters changed their methodologies to account for educational attainment. But polls this time seem to be off again, and Biden, like Clinton, maintained a stark advantage among voters with at least a bachelor’s degree, while Trump continued to win among voters with an associate’s degree or less. See the graphic below via Patrick Ruffini’s analysis of AP VoteCast data:

In other words, the Biden coalition looks quite a bit different than the ones assembled by recent Democrats. Per Andy Rotherham’s suggestion on Tuesday, who wins the election matters the most, but how they win is also important for understanding how they might govern after all the votes are counted.

What Bellwether Is Watching Out For in Election 2020

That there’s a lot at stake in this election is obvious. And there is a lot at stake for schools even as they’ve been mostly an afterthought on the campaign trail. There are immediate questions about COVID-19 relief and, going forward, big questions for early education, higher education, assessment, accountability, and choice policies for K-12 schools. 

This is nothing new: Bellwether has an entire genre of blog posts about how little education gets talked about during presidential debates, vice presidential debates, State of the Union addresses, and other federal policy conversations. And while single-issue education voters may not be unicorns, they are pretty rare.  

At Bellwether we track the election and what it means for clients, and we pay attention to the context and conditions schools operate in. Our team is united by a shared mission of improving life and education outcomes for underserved students, but we differ about how best to do that — and, by extension, about politics. But like everyone, we are paying close attention this year.

Here’s some of what we are watching for: Continue reading