Tightening Up Title I

Last Friday, along with my friends at the Center for American Progress, I co-hosted a pretty neat conference on “Tightening Up Title I.” Held over at CAP, the papers waded into the regulatory and operational questions of NCLB (aka ESEA) that too often get overlooked in the rush to overhaul accountability or dream up new teacher quality or school improvement schemes.

A few of the papers broached topics that never get seriously addressed. In perhaps my favorite piece, attorney/consultants Melissa Junge and Sheara Krvaric penned an eye-opening account of how federal language around “supplement not supplant” frequently stifles smart problem-solving and undercuts the policy goals of Title I. Junge and Krvaric offer possible responses, including a new allocation test and making the provision waivable.

Discussants including Oakland Superintendent Tony Smith and Department of Education big wheel Carmel Martin acknowledged the import of Junge and Krvaric’s take, and endorsed smart efforts to address them. How big a problem is this stuff? Junge pointed out that the struggle of districts to comply with “supplement not supplant” generates more business for her consultancy than anything else. “This is a great deal for us,” she wryly observed, “but spending a lot on lawyers may not be the best thing for the kids.” She also pointed out how often districts wind up locked by past decisions into dumb uses of Title I funds, out of fear that shifting those dollars will violate “supplement not supplant.”

CAP’s Raegan Miller and the New America Foundation’s Jennifer Cohen offered a compelling analysis of Florida that illustrated just how poorly today’s rules ensure that Title I dollars get spent where they’re supposed to. It became evident that there’s enormous potential for some kind of bargain which dramatically loosens restrictions on “supplement not supplant” in return for real data on spending comparability.

USC’s Patricia Burch, Harvard’s Karen Mapp, and Brenda Turnbull of Policy Studies Associates each penned papers that examined challenges with Title I implementation as it stands. Burch offered a slate of lessons from supplemental services, Mapp considered questions of parental involvement, and Turnbull explored challenges of state capacity.

Finally, Harvard’s Marty West and Jon Fullerton each wrote pieces that took up timely questions of productivity and how Title I impacts district management. West discussed the absence of any current attention to productivity in NCLB/ESEA and offered a number of strategies to start encouraging states and districts to pay more attention to cost effectiveness. Fullerton offered a lacerating look at the way Title I regulations today encourage timid, compliance-driven, input-oriented, and ultimately ineffectual district management. As he notes in the paper, “Title I fiscal requirements have created a series of management imperatives that are orthogonal or even contrary to the original intent of ESEA.” These include, in Jon’s words, “One cannot create substantial efficiencies in the delivery of K-12 education” and “School districts should use inflexible per pupil formulas to assign staff to schools.”

Together, the pieces show how little the 2001 NCLB reauthorization did to address the regulatory burdens that have sprung from Title I, and to offer smart, practical strategies for crafting a law that can fulfill its aims without ensnaring educators and local officials in a frustrating legal labyrinth.

– Frederick Hess

This post also appears at Rick Hess Straight Up.

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