Washington – As the Obama administration rolls out rules on how to implement the nation’s new federal education law, one proposal has created quite a stir and could shake up how money is spent on schools in the state’s poor neighborhoods.
The Obama administration is expected to soon issue final regulations on changes to a federal grant program, called Title I, that provides the nation’s school districts with $15 billion each year aimed at supplementing spending on schools with many poor and minority students.
This year Connecticut is expected to receive about $120 million in Title I money, which it will distribute to individual school districts. The grants ranged in 2015 from a high of nearly $17 million for the Hartford school district, the poorest in the state, to a low of about $9,300 for the Barkhamsted School District.
Since Title I is meant to provide extra support for high poverty schools, the Obama Adminstration is proposing a rule meant to prevent school districts from underfunding those schools and then using Title 1 money to close the gap with better-funded schools in the district. The administration rule would require school districts to equalize spending among schools first before devoting Title I funds to the neediest schools.
School districts would have to make clear how much they are actually spending in each school and, for the first time, specify how much money schools are getting from different sources, including the district, the state, and the federal government.
Last year, the Education Department determined Connecticut’s state and local governments spent 8.7 percent less per student in the poorest school districts than in the most affluent school districts. About $7 billion in local, state and federal money is spent on education each year in Connecticut.
There also would be greater scrutiny under the new education law over how a school spends its resources.
“If a school is failing, you have to do more than paint the front of it green,” said Sen. Chris Murphy. a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, who helped write the new law, called the Every Student Succeeds Act.
But the Obama administration’s plan to implement the Title I portion of the plan has drawn fire from school officials and created a split between teachers and civil rights groups.
Under the Obama administration’s proposal, school districts would have to calculate what they actually spend on teacher salaries in each school and close the gaps among schools.
Since few school districts would be able to equalize salaries by spending more, the result could be transfers of teachers from one school to another to level out expenditures among schools. Educators say poorer schools tend to be staffed by less experienced, lower-paid teachers.
“We don’t want a teacher’s salary and benefits to keep him or her from getting hired, just like we don’t want a teacher’s salary and benefits to force him or her to be transferred,” said. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers at a HELP Committee hearing Wednesday on the education law.
Weingarten wondered if “schools will have the latitude to make staffing decisions, like how many experienced teachers they retain or how many new teachers they hire – based on their own needs?”
“Or will federal policy force the leveling down of funding, so some schools face budget cuts that compel them to make no-win choices about which teachers to keep or hire?” Weingarten asked.
Republicans on the panel, including Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, said the Obama administration had overstepped its authority and the language of the education law in proposing the new regulations.
Alexander gave the Education Department an “A for cleverness” but said, “If the administration can’t follow [statutory] language on this, it raises grave questions about what we might expect from future regulations.”
Since President Obama signed the new education bill, which replaced the “No Child Left Behind” law in December, the administration has been crafting regulations to implement the wide-ranging new law.
Still ahead are regulations on accountability, which are expected to trigger even more controversy than those concerning Title I funding.
Meanwhile, civil rights advocates testified in support of the administration’s Title I plans.
Nationally, districts serving the most students of color receive roughly $2,000 or 15 percent, less in state and local funding per student than districts serving the fewest,” said Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza. “And we know that black and Latino students are more likely to be taught by novice teachers.”
On Friday, Beth Schiavano-Narvaez, superintendent of Hartford Public Schools, will participate in a forum held by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on inequalities in public education funding.
Hartford school teachers are among the lowest-paid in the state, and just over half of the students who live in Hartford still attend segregated schools, meaning that 75 percent of the students enrolled in their schools are black or Hispanic.
Meanwhile, Murphy asked witnesses about the implementation of another provision he inserted into the new education law that he said “is a passion” of his.
The education law requires states to develop plans to reduce the use of restraint and seclusion as disciplinary measures, as well as bullying, harassment, and student suspensions.
Murphy spoke of seclusion “screaming rooms” and the physical restraint of 70,000 students nationwide. He also spoke of local practices.
“In Connecticut, we have a problem,” Murphy said.
Denise Marshall, executive director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, responded “schools need to unequivocally stop this abuse.”
Reporter Jacqueline Rabe Thomas contributed to this story.