In an attempt to better match federal funds with the students the money is supposed to help, the state is piloting a program that will re-direct more than half a million dollars to the relatively wealthy Douglas County Schools.
The State Board of Education this week voted 6-1 to approve a pilot program under which the suburban school district will receive an additional $547,072 in federal Title I money next year to provide services for poor students.
The two-year pilot is intended to account for students who attend the HOPE Online Learning Academy – Elementary but who live in other districts that now receive the Title I funding for those children. The $547,072 is the estimated shift of funds in 2014-15. A similar amount likely would be allocated in 2015-16.
The plan drew vocal opposition from board member Elaine Gantz Berman at Wednesday’s meeting, and district leaders who stand to lose money aren’t happy either.
“We’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Berman said. Dougco “is the ninth wealthiest county in the United States. … I can’t in good conscience vote for this. I can’t take money away from Greeley and Aurora and DPS.”
Charlotte Ciancio, superintendent of the Mapleton Public Schools, told Chalkbeat Colorado that what CDE is doing “is absolutely the right conversation and absolutely the wrong solution.” Mapleton would lose $5,188 from its estimated $1.2 million Title I allocation.
“Five thousand dollars in a district our size is significant,” Ciancio said.
The four districts taking the biggest hits are Denver ($169,733), Aurora ($143,970), Adams 12-Five Star ($45,868) and Westminster ($45,905). See the list of districts that will lose money and the amounts here.
Summing up the dilemma, state school finance director Leanne Emm told the board, “It’s a zero sum game.”
The problem CDE is trying to address was created because Title I funding allocations are based on geography – primarily poverty rates within U.S. Census tracts and welfare caseloads. But students enrolled in online schools like HOPE live in many different districts, 21 districts in HOPE’s case.
In the bureaucratic words of a document presented to the board Wednesday, “Current methods for allocating Title I, Part A funds do not always accurately reflect where students are receiving services. Given the changing landscape of educational opportunities for students, studying the impacts of revising allocation methods will provide information necessary to make informed decisions moving forward.” (See the full presentation here.)
Although HOPE Online is authorized by the Dougco district, “very few of those kids live in Douglas County,” Keith Owen, deputy commissioner of education, told Chalkbeat Colorado in an interview. About 1,000 HOPE elementary students live outside the district.
“HOPE and Douglas County have been asking the department” for action on the issue for a number of years, Owen said, but no solution seemed workable until the idea for the pilot program came up. Senior Assistant Attorney General Tony Dyl indicated to the board he believes the program meets federal requirements.
The additional funds won’t necessarily go to HOPE but rather will allow Dougco to provide Title I funding for resident students in its own schools.
Owen told the board that Dougco’s current $1.2 million Title I allocation goes to HOPE and to certain set-asides like funding for homeless students. “They [the district] don’t serve other schools currently,” he said.
The bureaucratic backstory
Title I is massively complicated, and a major issue is that while overall district funding is determined by census-determined poverty rates, money is distributed to schools based on different criteria, usually the number of students eligible for free lunch or for both free and reduced-price lunch.
Ciancio, in a letter to the board urging rejection of the pilot project, noted that census-based poverty calculations indicate 1,486 Mapleton children are in poverty, but it has 4,287 free-lunch students. (Read the letter here.)
“We contend that the [Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates are] seriously underestimating the true impact of children in poverty in some districts,” she wrote. (SAIPE is the federal acronym for the census poverty calculation.)
On top of that, Title I funds come in four subcategories, for which districts have different levels of eligibility.
And, beyond a requirement that schools with 75 percent or more at-risk students get Title I funding, districts have latitude in how they spend the money. Some give it just to elementary schools, for instance.
“There’s never enough money to serve every student,” Owen said.
The complexity and the flexibility lead to varying amounts of Title I funding among districts. Owen said Dougco is spending $758 per eligible HOPE student. Berman said the DPS per-student amount is $438. Within a district, some schools may receive no Title I money, even if they serve some poor students.
See the list of all Colorado schools with their 2012-13 Title I status here (link downloads PDF).
The proposed solution
CDE developed criteria for online schools that could be eligible for the pilot, including minimum numbers of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, having a significantly higher percentage of such students than the authorizing district and participation in the federal school meal program. Of all the programs considered, only HOPE met all the criteria. It’s the only such school to participate in the meal program at its learning centers.
Owen said CDE will monitor use of the funds, including the strategies implemented for poor students, the impact on districts that lost funding and how to effectively use Title I funds in a multi-district online school. “A pilot gives us the opportunity to look at the impact,” he said.
Commissioner Robert Hammond told the board, “Ultimately the lessons learned could lead to statewide changes.”
In her letter, Ciancio wrote, “In our assessment, taking resources from one severely underfunded, highly impacted school district to support another underfunded school district feels inappropriate and unjust.”
She continued, “We ask you to charge the Colorado Department of Education to go back to the drawing board to find a solution that equitably funds districts and considers each child.”
She suggested that a more uniform way to allocate per-student funding could be developed by the state.
Owen told the board that such a statewide change might be possible but “is a massive undertaking” that CDE doesn’t have the capacity to handle now.
Shifting of Title I funds away from districts isn’t unprecedented. The state-run Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind in Colorado Springs and schools supervised by the Charter School Institute receive Title I funds based on their students’ districts of residence.
HOPE’s elementary program enrolls about 1,750 students, more than 60 percent eligible for free lunch. The school is in its fourth year at the priority improvement rating, Owen said. That’s the second lowest level in the state accountability system, and schools remaining at the level for five years are subject to state interventions including closure. (See the accountability report on all three HOPE schools here).