Category Archives: State 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. 

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.

Is Curriculum Infrastructure?

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Hopes for a bipartisan infrastructure bill may be fading, but there is growing interest in instructional infrastructure in the form of high-quality curriculum. 

Last month, I argued that policymakers and education leaders ought to start treating curriculum like infrastructure. A high-quality, coherent curriculum should provide every student and educator with a solid foundation upon which excellent instruction can be built. Unfortunately, policymakers often defer responsibility to the lowest levels, creating a status quo where educators spend more than 12 hours a week creating or curating instructional materials.

What needs to be done? 

It’s an important question at the core of a podcast conversation I had on Melissa and Lori Love Literacy. We covered four key ways to develop more schools where instruction, learning, and professional development are centered around high-quality, coherent curricula. 

1. High-quality curriculum should serve as a foundation for post-pandemic teaching and learning

School systems will undoubtedly use federal recovery funding to address the wide range of post-pandemic student learning needs. We’re likely to see tutoring programs and efforts to remediate (or accelerate) student learning during the 2021-22 school year, but will they have a meaningful impact on students?

Absent a strong curriculum that clearly articulates the knowledge and skills students ought to acquire, many of these efforts will fail to produce positive outcomes for students. This is a particular risk in non-math subject areas, where there are fewer direct connections between state standards and specific content knowledge. 

If school system leaders aren’t centering their learning recovery efforts around high-quality curricula, now is the time to start moving in that direction.

2. Curriculum is an under-utilized lever for equity

There are two ways in which curriculum can serve as a lever for equity in schools. First and foremost, high-quality curricula can reduce the gaps in background knowledge for students. We have mountains of examples, from the baseball study to the works of E.D. Hirsch and Natalie Wexler, that show the immense impact increased background knowledge can have on student learning. Well-structured, knowledge-building curricula can ensure that students in different classrooms or different schools have access to a similar body of topics and content. 

Secondly, strong curricula can improve equity by increasing the efficacy of early-career educators. More often than not, schools that serve highest-needs students are staffed with less experienced educators than schools with lower-needs students. Ensuring that teachers don’t have to spend upwards of 12 hours a week on instructional materials is a big step toward improving the quality of early-career educators. Supporting educators with a strong curriculum can help them focus on instructional delivery and building a strong classroom culture — a shift that would help early-career educators the most and, in turn, their highest-needs students.

3. Policymakers should focus on transparency

When William Goldman said of the movie industry, “nobody knows anything,” he could have been speaking about curriculum in K-12 schools. It’s unfortunately rare for a state education agency to have a solid understanding of what is actually being taught in its classrooms. Even though districts and schools may have adopted curricula on paper, teachers may not have support or resources to implement it with fidelity. 

Policymakers must reduce the opacity that obscures what curricula actually get taught in classrooms. One way is by reporting adopted curricula at the district and school level, along with surveys of educators to gauge to what degree adopted curricular materials are actually used in their instruction. 

4. Everyone involved in schools can work to move the needle on curricular transparency and quality

No matter your position in K-12 schools — as an educator, a policymaker, a parent/guardian, or a concerned taxpayer — everyone can play a role in driving improvements in curricular quality. State leaders can build support for more transparency around curriculum. District leaders can more thoughtfully engage in the curriculum adoption process. Educators can advocate for more curriculum-aligned professional development. Families and taxpayers may not want to engage in the wonky details of curriculum, but they, too, can play a role by asking schools a simple question: “What books can you guarantee my child will read during the next school year in (insert grade level/subject)?” 

The school year ahead will include innumerable ongoing challenges associated with the pandemic. Ensuring that school leaders and teachers have access to high-quality curricula is one way to build back better.

State Governments Will Be Even More Partisan Post 2020. What Does That Mean for Education?

In our federated system of K-12 education governance, state legislatures and governors play a huge role in shaping the educational experience of our nation’s children. Heading into the 2020 election cycle, only one state’s legislature was under split partisan control (Minnesota’s House of Representatives was controlled by Democrats, their Senate by Republicans). In every other state, one party had complete control of the legislature. In 36 states, one party held a trifecta of government control: both legislative chambers plus the governorship. 

The 2020 elections looked like an opportunity to disrupt that dynamic. Several legislative chambers looked like they might flip, including both chambers in Arizona and Alaska, Iowa’s House, Michigan’s House, Minnesota’s Senate, North Carolina’s Senate, and the Pennsylvania House. In an environment that appeared to favor Democrats across the country, it was a chance to break the stranglehold of single-party control in at least a few states.

But in the wake of the 2020 elections, it looks like we’ll have more of the same. So far, the only legislative chamber that flipped control is in New Hampshire, giving the Republicans a new trifecta under Gov. Chris Sununu. The GOP gained another trifecta in Montana following the election of Greg Gianforte as Governor. While there is still a chance that one or both chambers may flip in Arizona or Alaska, we certainly did not see Democrats making significant inroads in state-level races around the country. 

The next few years are sure to be critical for K-12 education policy. Schools, educators, and families are still struggling with educating kids in the midst of a global pandemic. State-level policymakers will not only have to support efforts to safely reopen schools for in-person instruction and face potential budgetary challenges, they will also need to address massive learning losses from months of disrupted learning — and in the case of some students, no learning at all

In 38 states, most of the policies to address those challenges will be formed and enacted by a single political party. In states controlled by Democrats, they’ll probably defer too much to teachers unions as they fight to keep schools closed. On the other side of things, Republican-led states may be hesitant to spend on measures to help schools reopen safely, like HVAC system upgrades

After all the ballots are counted, our nation will remain deeply divided on many fronts, but the challenges facing students, families, and educators transcend partisan affiliations. Let’s hope that state policymakers from both parties can rise to the moment.

Stay tuned for more Election 2020 coverage here.