A classroom at DiLoreto Magnet Elementary School in New Britain CTMirror file photo
A classroom at DiLoreto Magnet Elementary School in New Britain
A classroom at DiLoreto Magnet Elementary School in New Britain, which receives federal Title I funds. CTMirror file photo

Washington – Connecticut has joined a fight over how federal money will be distributed, beginning next year, to schools with the largest populations of poor or disadvantaged students.

The controversy pits teachers’ unions and many state departments of education, including Connecticut’s, against civil and human rights groups.

The issue is whether school districts will be able to continue to substitute federal “Title I” money for local money to help bridge a funding gap between rich and poor schools. The Connecticut Department of Education, and the state’s teachers’ unions, want that flexibility.

Civil liberties and human rights groups, and the U.S. Department of Education do not. They say the Title I money must “supplement” not “supplant” local funding of schools with large populations of poor and disabled students and those with limited English proficiency.

The U.S. Department of Education is moving to finalize a new regulation that would prevent school districts from using Title I dollars instead of local dollars to close the gap between spending on rich and poor schools.

But the Connecticut Department of Education says there are several problems with the proposed changes to the Title I program.

“In an effort to equalize spending between Title I schools and non-Title I schools, district administration would have to override school-level decisions to ensure balance,” wrote Connecticut Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell to the U.S. Department of Education. “It also imposes an extreme paperwork burden.”

Wentzell’s was one of more than 3,500 public comments on the new regulation, which the Obama administration wants to finalize before the president leaves office in January.

Wentzell told the Connecticut Mirror, “The restrictive nature of the regulation does cause concern” and has urged the U.S. Department of Education to give school districts more flexibility when it issues a final rule.

One problem, Wentzell said, is that existing programs aimed at helping disadvantaged students may not be funded in the future with federal dollars because that may be seen as “supplanting” local school funding.

The debate has split Congress, with some lawmakers saying the U.S. Department of Education has overreached in interpreting the new education law, called the Every Student Succeeds Act, and others, including Sen. Chris Murphy, saying the change is needed to help disadvantaged children.

“At its core, education is a civil rights issue,” Murphy said. “A child from a poor neighborhood who attends a struggling, under-resourced school is disadvantaged for the rest of her or his life. This dispute isn’t about a funding formula, it’s about the kind of country we want to be.”

Murphy, a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, helped write the section on Title I funding in the education bill.

“I fought to level the playing field for low-income and disadvantaged students on the education committee, and continue to urge the Department of Education to write a strong rule that makes sure federal money goes to the students most in need,” he said.

Connecticut received $122.4 million in Title I funding last year.

“All districts in Connecticut receive Title I funding, but it’s a more significant source for some districts than others,” Wentzell said.

Changes in the way that money is distributed by the state would affect the school districts that receive the most Title I money:

  • Bridgeport           $10,425,192
  • Hartford              $13,355,979
  • New Britain         $ 5,972,943
  • New Haven         $10,216,776
  • Waterbury           $10,486,823

A lobbying blitz

This week 25 GOP members of the House and Senate education committees urged the U.S. Department of Education to withdraw its proposed “supplement not supplant” regulation, saying it “violates the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress.”

The lawmakers say the proposed regulation “dictates to states and local school districts how they should distribute state and local funds, which violates the law and its prohibitions on the Secretary [of Education].”

The nation’s teachers’ unions also are concerned about the proposed changes in the Title I program.

Hundreds of public comments were submitted by union members, some of whom were concerned that higher-paid, experienced teachers would be moved from one school to another to level out spending among schools in a district. Salaries are often the largest expense in a school budget.

Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, said focusing on variations in funding between schools in a district, “while relevant and important,” misses a larger picture of persistent disparities in total resources among school districts. She urged states to find ways to more equitably fund their schools.

“We’ve seen the best public schools and what they offer to students – fully stocked libraries with librarians, advanced coursework, science labs, music and art classes, up-to-date textbooks. Why can’t we have that for every student?” García asked. “The proposed regulations could lead to districts cutting entire programs like music, art and PE, in order to get the money to meet the compliance requirement. Districts may have to spread federal funds more thinly to more schools, or to cut Title I from some schools — solely to pass the test.”

The Congressional Research Service bolstered criticism of the proposed regulation, finding in May that it appeared to “go beyond what would be required by a plain reading of the [Every Student Succeeds Act.]”

Meanwhile, a coalition of 25 civil and human rights groups has come up with a different legal analysis, finding that the U.S. Department of Education has “ample” legal authority to move forward with its proposal.

“Without clarity in regulations for the oversight of this provision of the law… low-income students will be deprived of the supports and services they need and deserve,” the coalition’s public comment says. “The department has both the authority and the responsibility to ensure that this provision is properly implemented, and we urge a final rule that will help states to effectuate the purpose of this provision of the law.”

Jason Morris, who described himself as an “education activist in New London,” had this to say about the regulation in his public comments:

“I was absolutely shocked to read the new rules because they were ACTUALLY beneficial to poor students, they ACTUALLY directly addressed a horrible inequality in district funding that has emerged around the country. I did not expect this from Secretary [of Education John] King, but when [mostly] Republican politicians AND unions are fighting against the new rules, you know there’s something about them that benefits the majority rather than the few.”

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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