Federal Dateline

Four Benefits of ESEA Fall Short of District Needs

by Mary Conk

After months of anxious waiting, Congress officially sent HR 1, the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, to President Bush’s desk for signature. While critics and supporters alike think the bill contains some of the most sweeping reforms since the inception of the U.S. Department of Education, there is mutual confusion over the likely impact on schools nationwide.

 

In the end, AASA did not support the final conference report between the Senate and the House versions. The number of potential problems seemed to outweigh any good the bill might hold. However, we see four major improvements to the operation of ESEA at the local level.

The first improvement is the inclusion of increased flexibility with federal dollars. Due to a new provision known as local transferability, the local district will be permitted to transfer up to 50 percent of its federal formula dollars and use them for any purpose stipulated under the act. The only prohibition is that school districts would be unable to transfer dollars out of Title I. Only new money may be placed in that stream. Districts can maintain this flexibility until two or more of their schools fall below the state’s level of proficiency. Should that occur, districts would be allowed to transfer up to 30 percent of their federal funds to use for school improvement purposes.

Targeted Money

Another addition to ESEA is improved targeting to districts. In 1994, a new formula was developed that was intended to increase Title I dollars for poverty districts. However, that formula was never put in place. The new formula calls for all new dollars to be used in concentration and targeted grants rather than the traditional basic grants.

Along these lines, states that distribute their dollars among districts in a more equitable fashion will receive a greater percentage of Title I money. This will encourage states to put their dollars where they are most needed. In all, $2.3 billion will flow in this new targeted process, making the total Title I expenditure of $12.3 billion this year.

Another improvement to ESEA is the increased consolidation of programs. This should reduce paperwork when local officials apply for separate programs and give greater flexibility in the use of the money. Consolidation will be most evident in the folding of class size reduction funds into Title II, now known as the Teacher and Principal Quality Training and Recruiting Fund, and the merging of several educational technology programs into a single funding stream, Enhancing Education through Technology.

Lastly, AASA is pleased to see the reauthorization of the Rural Education Achievement Program, or REAP. This program, first authorized a year ago, now has been included as a part of ESEA under Title VI, which ensure that small and rural schools will receive additional resources.

REAP now comprises two separate programs. The first is a formula program that targets rural schools enrolling 600 or fewer students. The second is a competitive grant program that targets rural schools that do not qualify for the first program but have at least 20 percent poverty in the student ranks.

However, the most celebratory part of the REAP program is that it was funded for the first time at $162.5 million this year. These new dollars will be split evenly between the two programs. Rural districts finally will receive their due.

Major Shortcomings

One might wonder why did AASA not support the final legislation if it carried all these positive additions to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act?

We are seriously concerned about the overwhelming amount of new mandates and paperwork being passed onto the states and local districts. In addition, the conference committee failed to recognize its federal commitment to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act when it did not include mandatory funding in the final conference report. Essentially, all of the new reforms in HR 1 will place a large financial burden on districts already struggling to make ends meet. In this year of declining state revenues, it will be harder than ever for districts to supply the necessary resources to improve achievement.

The new legislation mandates annual student testing in grades 3 to 8 whether or not schools receive federal funds. It also requires local districts to develop an individual plan of improvement for every child in a failing school that chooses to take advantage of new after-school tutoring provisions. This plan would have to be developed jointly by the tutoring provider, the child’s parent and the local district and then the local district would have to follow up with the tutoring service to ensure the appropriate services are provided. No federal dollars are offered to support this measure.

HR 1 provides a large increase in the federal participation in what previously were state and local matters. AASA’s concern is that with an increased federal role of the educational process, the real power is being taken away from those who need it most: the local districts.

Mary Conk is a legislative specialist at AASA. E-mail: mconk@aasa.org