budget brokering

Why the Trump administration wants school districts to change their budgets — and how Title I could stand in the way

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

President Trump’s first budget proposal promised $1 billion in new funds for poor students, with a catch: the money would be used to encourage school districts to adopt a new way of funding their schools.

Tucked into the administration’s “skinny budget,” the single sentence on the issue manages to say a great deal about the Trump administration’s priorities — and about how complicated it could be to move them forward.

The budget proposal calls for expanding Title I with money “dedicated to encouraging districts to adopt a system of student-based budgeting and open enrollment that enables Federal, State, and local funding to follow the student to the public school of his or her choice.” In calling for student-based budgeting, Trump joins a host of big-city school leaders and education reformers who argue that money should follow each student, no matter where they enroll.

It sounds like a simple idea, but it’s far from how most school districts operate.

Districts traditionally create school budgets based largely on how much it costs to pay the salaries of the adults who work in a building. That can mean schools serving high-needs students, which often have less experienced and lower-paid teachers, get less money than schools with more affluent students.

Under student-based budgeting, each student attending a school brings a certain amount of money, which can grow based on factors like whether the student has a disability or comes from a low-income family. That kind of system appeals to those who want schools with greater challenges to receive more funding. School-choice advocates like it, too, since it rewards schools that attract students and makes inequities in funding between district and charter schools more apparent.

It also forces districts to do the student-by-student calculations that could enable private-school vouchers — making student-based budgeting a gateway policy for voucher advocates such as U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Districts such as New York City and Denver have shifted toward student-based budgeting in the last decade, as their systems of school choice have grown more robust. Other districts, including Indianapolis Public Schools, are making the shift now, sometimes painfully. (The approach is also known as fair student funding and weighted student funding.) But districts don’t control the distribution of federal funds, so making the change requires maintaining different budgeting processes.

“There’s a lot of interest in being able to use federal funds in the mix,” said Jennifer Schiess, a policy analyst at Bellwether Education Partners.

But there’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on a incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. For one, advertising the new funds as part of Title I, even if ultimately adding them there would be tricky, brought the administration some of its only positive spin on the budget news, which was widely panned as working against poor Americans.

Plus, creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

One pathway to encouraging student-based budgeting already exists in the law. When they rewrote the law last year, lawmakers included a pilot program designed to let 50 school districts change the way they hand out funds, including Title I funds. Martin West, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says he expects a DeVos-led education department would push for that program to expand.

And a big question with any of the possible changes, he said, is how poor students fare.

“It will be important to see the details of what is ultimately proposed in order to see if it’s done in such a way to benefit the students that Title I is designed to serve,” West said.

schools' choice

Betsy DeVos’s comments on discrimination drew headlines, but her stance isn’t unique among private school choice backers

PHOTO: Matt Barnum
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Providence Cristo Rey in Indianapolis.

Betsy DeVos drew incredulous reactions this week when she said she would let states decide on the rules for voucher programs vying for federal money — including whether schools that discriminate against LGBT students could participate.

But the education secretary’s position isn’t out of the mainstream among voucher supporters, or out of step with how private school choice programs work across the country.

For instance, Robert Enlow of the Indianapolis-based EdChoice, a group that advocates for vouchers, emphasized that his group does not support discrimination but declined to take a position on whether private schools that receive public funds should be prohibited from discriminating based on sexual orientation.

“As an organization we are working [toward] our position” on that issue, he told Chalkbeat, the day before DeVos’s comments to Congress. “It is something we are concerned about and that we need to confront head on, but we don’t have a position yet.”

That stance is also reflected in model private school choice legislation from the American Federation for Children, the advocacy group that DeVos used to lead. It says only that schools should comply with federal discrimination law, and does not include rules regarding sexual orientation. A spokesperson for the group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Voucher programs give families public funds to pay private school tuition. The vast majority of private schools in the country are religious; in Indiana there are just seven non-religious private schools participating in the state’s voucher program, compared to nearly 300 Christian schools.

Federal law bans discrimination based on “race, color, or creed” in private schools that receive tax exemptions but is silent on the issue of sexual orientation. According to a 2016 study, no school voucher program in the country includes such protections, meaning that students or families who elect to participate may have no legal recourse if they face discrimination based on sexual orientation.

And a number of schools that are part of publicly funded private school choice programs in Indiana, North Carolina, and Georgia — initiatives backed by national school choice groups — include explicitly anti-gay language.

Blackhawk Christian School in Fort Wayne, Indiana, says in its handbook that it may refuse admission or expel a student for “practicing homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity, promoting such practices, or otherwise having the inability to support the moral principles of the school.”

Another Indiana school highlights differences between public schools and private Christian schools on its website, including that while teachers in public schools “may be straight or gay,” those in private schools are “committed believers seeking to model Christ before their students.” Both schools participate in Indiana’s school voucher program.

Choice programs differ. Some, like Washington, D.C.’s federally backed initiative, prohibit discrimination based on religion or gender, while other don’t. Attempts to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in D.C.’s program have been voted down by Republicans in Congress.

Public schools are not free from discrimination, according to survey data compiled by GLSEN, a group that pushes for fair treatment of LGBT students in school. According to the survey, LGBT students reported experiencing more discrimination in private religious schools as compared to public schools — but were less likely to experience verbal or physical harassment in private schools.

Supporters of school choice worry that banning discrimination would stop some private schools from participating in voucher programs and prevent them from practicing their religion.

“If you support private school choice, then you have to be comfortable with allowing private schools to remain private,” Michael Petrilli of the conservative Fordham Institute said earlier this year. “One part of that is allowing them to be religious, to have a set of values they believe in, and to have an admissions process to make sure kids are a good fit for their program.”

Enlow pointed to research compiled by EdChoice that private schools instill a greater sense of tolerance and civic virtue than public schools.

Enlow suggested that questions of discrimination can be addressed locally. “We believe that families and schools working together can solve this,” he said.

School choices

School choice supporters downplay new voucher research, saying schools are more than a test score

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

At this week’s gathering of school choice supporters, there was an awkward fact in their midst: A wave of new studies had shown that students receiving a voucher did worse, sometimes much worse, on standardized tests.

That was the inconvenient verdict of studies examining programs in Louisiana, Ohio, Washington, D.C., and in Indianapolis, where the advocates had convened for the annual conference of the American Federation for Children. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the group’s former leader, gave the keynote address.

But many of the school choice proponents, who had long made the case that their favored reform works, had an explanation at the ready.

Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, only alluded to the recent studies. “In spite of a few research projects of a narrowly identified group of students, the simple fact is when you create a marketplace of choices and informed parents … the children do better,” he told the audience.

Other leading supporters emphasized the impact the programs have beyond test scores, as well as the shortcomings of recent studies.

“Some of the data that is really interesting [looks at] not just achievement, but attainment,” Robert Enlow, head of EdChoice, a group that backs vouchers and tax credit programs, told Chalkbeat. “A kid may not be doing as well on a test score as we would like, but they’re graduating at higher rates [and] they’re going into college at higher rates.”

Indeed, older studies show that students in Milwaukee’s voucher program were more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college. Students in D.C.’s initiative also completed high school at a higher rate.

Enlow also pointed to evidence that private school choice can spur improvements in public schools through competition and increase parent satisfaction rates. Sounding a bit like some of his opponents who lead teachers unions, Enlow argued that test scores are a poor measure of educational quality.

“We want a vibrant society of people who know what they’re doing who are productive members of society,” he said. “A single test doesn’t prove jack about that.”

While EdChoice has said that school choice leads to academic gains, the group has also argued, prior to the recent studies, that parents care about more than just test scores when choosing schools. EdChoice opposes requiring students in voucher programs to take state tests at all. Without such data, making comparisons to public schools is more difficult.

Still, Enlow said, “there are some studies showing that private schools need to get better on test scores.”

Supporters also noted that the studies in D.C. and Louisiana were based on just one and two years of data, respectively. Enlow says that is too little information to draw helpful conclusions, a point echoed by Kevin Chavous, a board member at the American Federation for Children and a former D.C. city council member.

“This is after one year in the program,” said Chavous referring to the recent D.C. report, which analyzed three groups of students after a single year of receiving a voucher. “Studies also show … the longer the kids are in these programs, the better they’ll do.”

An overview of past research on school vouchers, including studies in other countries, found that students were neither helped nor harmed after three years, but saw significant test score jumps in the fourth year.

DeVos hasn’t addressed the topic in depth. After her own Department of Education released the report on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, DeVos stated, “The study released today found that D.C. OSP parents overwhelmingly support this program, and that, at the same time, these schools need to improve upon how they serve some of D.C.’s most vulnerable students.”

Chavous argues that giving families choice means allowing them to pick schools based on what is important to them, which may not be test scores. It’s also hypocritical for those who are skeptical of testing to then use test results to criticize voucher programs, he said.

“You can’t have it both ways — you can’t say we have too much high-stakes testing when it comes to public schools and then when it comes to private choice programs, OK, they aren’t passing the test,” he said.

But he acknowledges inconsistency on his own side among those who use test results to claim that public schools are failing.

“We’re all hypocrites on the testing thing,” Chavous said.

This story has been updated to clarify EdChoice’s previous statements on the value of test scores.