The Best Part of NCLB Reauthorization You’ve Never Heard Of

Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) two weeks ago released their bipartisan agreement to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). I’m sure reasonable minds will differ, but the Every Child Achieves Act strikes me a remarkably bipartisan balance on the hot-button issues of testing, standards, and accountability that students, parents and teachers experience so personally and have dominated this year’s reauthorization discussion.

The larger legacy of the Every Child Achieves Act may well be how it cleans up supplement not supplant, a little discussed and often misunderstood fiscal rule with a big impact on how schools actually spend the $14 billion of NCLB Title I funds. The proposed legislation makes two important changes: (1) it requires districts to show they are distributing their state and local funds across schools without regard to the federal funds that each school receives; and (2) it increases local autonomy over how to spend Title I funds.

These changes are a big deal. Under current law, those Title I schools that do not operate schoolwide programs must demonstrate that every single thing they buy with Title I funds helps only the neediest students, and would not be purchased with other funds absent the federal aid. In my research, I’ve found this rule often has the unintended consequence of preventing districts from spending money on the things that might help those students most, pushing schools to work around the edges of their central instructional mission. They buy “interventionists” instead of teachers, or “supplemental” curricular materials rather than “core” ones, and are discouraged from investing Title I funds in technology.The historical context of supplement not supplant is key to understanding why the rules are so strict. Title I was established in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, during the War on Poverty and before broad-based school desegregation. Ruby Martin and Phyllis McClure’s seminal reporting in a 1969 report issued by the Washington Research Project and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund identified case after case of egregious misuse of funds by states and districts. One school district housed its Title I materials in a (white) school that was not Title I eligible, purportedly due to fear of theft in (black) Title I schools. One Mississippi county felt sufficiently autonomous that it used Title I funds to build sewage disposal lagoons.

This reporting quickly prompted the development of fiscal rules organized around the concept of ensuring federal funds yield extra stuff for the most disadvantaged students—and, critically, nothing at all for the others.

These rules have been enforced with great vigor and a disturbing amount of error for the past 45 years through the federal single audit process. State or local agencies found to have violated the rules can be required to pay back misspent funds to the federal government. The end result? Today’s market for legal advice to anxious administrators seeking “compliant, audit-friendly ways to spend education funds.” Those audit-friendly ways are very often small, incremental efforts—think after-school tutoring by paraprofessionals—that seem unlikely to provide help at any fundamental level to the students who need it most.

Civil rights advocates are absolutely right to want assurance that Title I funds actually reach the most disadvantaged. That sentiment, however, has led to a policy that is so focused on ensuring that no Title I dollars help anyone else along the way it does not permit schools to spend Title I funds in the most effective way for those disadvantaged kids. Every Child Achieves could fix the problem, and then some.

The bill requires districts to show they distribute state and local funds to schools without considering Title I allocations; that is, they can’t give poor schools fewer state and local resources while planning to use federal funds to level them up. The bill then makes it incredibly clear—so clear you could understand without legal counsel—that districts do not have to prove every single line item on a budget is, in a highly specific and restrictive sense, “extra.” Together, these changes would strengthen the redistributive impact of the law, true to its War on Poverty mission, in addition to promoting the local flexibility needed for a strong return on federal investment in our neediest schools.

It’s time to support this new vision of supplement not supplant, so districts make spending decisions based on teaching and learning, not to defend future audits.   

– Nora Gordon

Nora Gordon is associate professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy and research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research.

This first appeared on The Hill.

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