Some Poor Districts Stand to Lose Out Again as Biden Preps to Pour Billions Into Schools | Education News

On a warm, sunny afternoon in early April, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona paced the halls of Beverly Hills Middle School in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania – one of the most rapidly diversifying and chronically underfunded school districts in the country. He walked alongside a facilities director who pointed out where the […]

On a warm, sunny afternoon in early April, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona paced the halls of Beverly Hills Middle School in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania – one of the most rapidly diversifying and chronically underfunded school districts in the country. He walked alongside a facilities director who pointed out where the air flow was weak, where it was strong and how that determined the number of students that could be in certain parts of the aging building.

The 13,000-student school district – a sprawling suburban outcrop nestled along the western edge of Philadelphia, where earlier that morning Cardona had visited an elementary school as part of his “Help is Here” school reopening tour – needs all the help it can get.

More than 1,000 English learners are enrolled in the high poverty district and roughly 3,000 have special needs. Its immigrant population is exploding and students there speak nearly 80 different languages. The schools themselves, some more than a century old, need $180 million in repairs. And in Pennsylvania – a state that’s been embroiled in equity funding lawsuits for the last decade – Upper Darby is one of the most underfunded districts in the state, to the tune of $20 million annually.

“It means a lot that you came here to see us,” Superintendent Daniel McGarry told Cardona. “A lot of times in school districts like Upper Darby, especially at schools like Beverly Hills, where you pour your heart and soul into working with children every single day, you feel like you’re forgotten.”

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The secretary’s visit was important signaling from President Joe Biden, who’s made reopening schools for in-person learning a top priority in his first 100 days and directed roughly $140 billion to school districts to help them return students to classrooms – especially for communities like Upper Darby, where the vast majority of children are still learning remotely.

The district is getting $35 million from the most recent coronavirus relief package – $55 million in total from the three tranches of federal aid Congress has passed since the onset of the pandemic.

“While it sounds like it’s a decent amount – and don’t get me wrong, we’re extremely appreciative, please, that we are getting funding like this at such a difficult time – but we’re underfunded $20 million as it is in one of the most underfunded state public education school systems in the country,” McGarry says, ticking off a long list of needs.

“I don’t want to be rude,” he says, “but $55 million is a drop in the bucket.”

There’s a good reason why McGarry feels that way: While Upper Darby is getting $2,700 per student from the latest round of federal relief, neighboring Philadelphia is getting nearly $13,000 per student.

The reason lies in a complicated and outdated formula that was used to distribute the money – a formula that’s resulted in decades of significant funding discrepancies that can shortchange school districts with high concentrations of poverty and benefit larger districts and big urban areas instead of poorer, rural districts and smaller high-poverty urban districts, like Upper Darby.

Now, the Biden administration is planning to use the same Title I formula to distribute roughly $100 billion in K-12 funding in its proposed $2 trillion infrastructure package, and the president’s fiscal 2022 budget request includes a proposal to more than double the Title I program itself, supercharging funding for it from $17 billion to $36 billion.

“When you’re an Upper Darby kid and you’re a kid who goes to Beverly Hills Middle School, you have this feeling like, ‘I’m a child from a diverse school, from a community that has a socioeconomic struggle. And when are we ever going to get a break to show who we are on a much grander scale and be appreciated for who we are?'” McGarry says. “I think it’s ridiculous in the United States of America that literally because of the ZIP code or the area you live that you will be provided an opportunity that somebody else isn’t.”

“These kids deserve the same opportunities, if not more, because the very fabric of what this country has been built on has kept many of these kids in the circumstances they are without a chance to make it better,” he says. “And what I mean by that is if we’re truly into equity and truly into making this country better, it starts with investing in the most important part – educating someone so they can grab the brass ring just like I could grab the brass ring. Why can’t my kids get that same opportunity?”

For a president and vice president who campaigned on closing the so-called $23 billion school funding gap between majority white districts and majority black and brown school districts, the influx of cash for the country’s public schools represents a historic moment to once and for all bring equity to a system of haves and have-nots.

“What I saw this morning was the importance of infrastructure, the importance of facilities,” Cardona told McGarry during his visit. “We spent a lot of time talking this morning about air quality and I saw strategies that were done there that were based on concerns unique to having 100-year-old buildings, where a couple of weeks ago I visited another school in a different state and they didn’t have those issues.”

“That’s why it’s important for me to be on the ground and hear what the unique challenges are,” he said.

But for McGarry and other superintendents of school districts like Upper Darby, using the Title I formula to distribute federal aid – no matter how much – will only lead to more of the same.

“You repeat history and you never make change,” he says.

In fact, a 2016 U.S. News investigation found that 20{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of all Title I money for poor students – $2.6 billion – ends up in school districts with higher proportions of wealthy families.

Title I’s complicated four-part formula is intended to financially buttress school districts that serve large numbers of low-income families. But for decades now, many education policy experts have argued that it leaves much to be desired, in large part because it places more weight on the number of poor students in a district than on the concentration of poor students in a district. It also rewards states and districts for investing more of their own dollars in education. And while the goal is to incentivize states to spend more themselves, it tends to compound existing inequalities since wealthier states and districts tend to invest more heavily in education anyway.

When Congress needed a way to distribute American Rescue Plan funding to states and school districts – and distribute it to them fast in order to help reopen schools for in-person learning – they landed on Title I as a way to target the school districts that would need the most help.

“Anyone you ask would agree that the Title I formulas aren’t perfect,” Ary Amerikaner, vice president of P-12 policy at The Education Trust, says. “It’s by far the best we have in terms of existing federal formulas and in terms of the targeted nature of the formula. I totally believe it was the right thing to do for a stimulus or stabilization package where you’re trying to get a lot of money out the door fast.”

But moving forward, with proposals that would send a windfall of additional aid to K-12 schools and from a White House that’s stated mission is to close funding gaps and drive equity in the public education system, most education policy experts agree that the way the dollars are distributed needs to change.

Amerikaner, who’s spent the majority of her career plotting the implications of education funding formulas and how they drive inequities or close gaps, sees two different paths forward – a more targeted Title I formula, or attaching strings to Title I funding that force states and municipalities to address their own funding inequities.

The former would require congressional action on a wholesale redesign of the formula, which has proven politically untenable in the past because it means that some districts would lose funding while others gain it. Requests for comment about whether Congress is open to such changes were unreturned from Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, and Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, the chairwoman and ranking member of the Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee who previously negotiated and failed to make changes to the Title I formula during the 2015 overhaul of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind education policy.

Given how difficult it’s been to make even incremental changes to the current formula, Amerikaner is hoping for the latter. After all, federal dollars account for, on average 8{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} to 10{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of all public education funding.

“There are some limits to what a federal formula can do to drive the closing of these gaps,” she says. “And if the politics of changing the Title I formula to be more targeted are too much, then I think what we really need to be focusing on is using the new infusion of cash as a lever, a lever for addressing inequities in state and local funding, and we can absolutely do that.”

In the coming weeks, the White House is set to release additional funding details for the president’s fiscal 2022 budget request, which some, including Amerikaner, expect will include language about how states and school districts can tap into the proposed major expansion of Title I.

“I hope and expect and certainly am advocating for that proposal to include strings or incentives that say that for state leaders to unlock that money they have to take serious action to close inequities in state formulas,” says Amerikaner, who provided support to the Biden transition team in its search for an education secretary.

“For me this is absolutely a critical moment,” she says. “There is some real momentum and some real interest across federal leadership and across executive and legislative branches in making a more offensive move and saying, ‘OK, now let’s make it better. It’s so critical that we take action to make it better.'”

Upper Darby’s McGarry is betting that Cardona can make it happen.

Perhaps more than other education secretaries of the past, Cardona understands intimately what McGarry means when he describes his district’s challenges, for he hails from a Connecticut school district not entirely unlike Upper Darby – a large suburb just outside a major urban center, with more students of color, low-income families, immigrants and English learners than other districts in the state. And it’s one of the many reasons why the secretary, who grew up in public housing and was classified as an English language learner himself, speaks so often and so forcefully about his pursuit of equity and using the windfall of federal aid to change the status quo.

“What matters to me about someone like him and meeting him, although briefly, is you have lived experiences, and when you have lived experiences you hope to God that as people move forward they never forget where they came from and they understand the responsibility you have to take on,” McGarry says.

“When I had Secretary Cardona’s ear, I wanted to say to him, ‘Look, it means a lot that you came here because it sends a message to my community, to my kids and to the most beautiful, challenged middle school we have in the school district that you care and that you’re going to do something about it,'” he says. “And that’s my hope. My hope for him is that he’s genuine and he’s going to do it.”

The next month will prove a crucial bellwether for the Biden administration and its commitment to that stated goal of closing funding gaps and ensuring kids from lower-income school districts get the same opportunities as their wealthier peers.

“It’s easy to be for $20 billion in Title I, which I am,” says Amerikaner about the proposed increase to Title I in Biden’s budget. “But I’m a whole lot more for it if we leverage it to change the vast rest of the public education spending inequities in our country.”

“Kids deserve us not to just sit back and clap for $20 billion more dollars when what they need is system reform,” Amerikaner says. “It can’t be more of the same.”

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