Education Law Prof Blog: Is There a Middle Ground in ESEA Reauthorization That Serves Both Sides' Interests?

Richard Kahlenberg thinks so. In a new essay in the Atlantic, Saving School Choice Without Undermining Poor Communities, he discusses the Republican insistence on increasing school choice and making Title I funds portable in the proposed reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  Democrats are resisting portability.  Moving money to private schools would undermine public education itself, while moving money within public schools could lead the the rich schools becoming richer while the neediest become poorer.

Kahlenberg points out that socio-economic integration has proven to be a more effective and cheaper means of improving educational outcomes than increasing funding in high poverty schools.  The "principle of portability, in fact, has in it the seeds of a solution to reduce economic segregation through public-school choice—if, and only if, portability is properly structured. In order to accomplish this, portable federal Title I funding, as well as state and local funding, would need to be weighted heavily enough to give poor kids sufficient money in their 'backpacks' that middle-class public schools would want to recruit them to attend."  

Current proposals offer too little in the way of financial incentives to fundamentally alter student enrollment trends. "But," Kahlenberg remarks, "every school has his price. What is the magical amount of extra money low-income students should have in their backpacks to be attractive to middle-class schools? That’s an empirical question that surveys of school administrators could answer definitively. Meanwhile, past experience shows that financial arrangements can be made to assuage middle-class schools."

An important piece of the puzzle that no one other than Kahlenberg is hitting upon is the need to hold the original school harmless. If the program actually grew to the point where it was leading to substantial transfers, the remaining students in the high poverty schools would be harmed through no fault of their own, as Democrats fear.  The easy--albeit costly solution--is to expand the financial pot and allow the high poverty schools to retain, at least, a portion of their funding.  Kahlenberg notes that the political and practical success of the St. Louis, Missouri, interdistrict transfer program was due the fact that it both incentivized suburban districts to take urban students while also protecting the urban schools left behind. "The state also set aside some financial aid for St. Louis schools to offset the loss of funding to its urban campuses."

Of course, the devil is in detail.  For a more detailed discussion of how Congress might use Title I funds to both integrate schools and meet existing need in high poverty schools, see pages 366-371 of this article.  The question is not whether we can do this, but whether a critical mass in Congress is willing to acknowledge the solution and entertain a meaningful compromise between the competing positions.

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Derek Black

Derek W. Black is a Professor of Law at the University of South Carolina School of Law. His areas of expertise include education law and policy, constitutional law, civil rights, evidence, and torts. The focus of his current scholarship is the intersection of constitutional law and public education, particularly as...