Chalkbeat explains

Memphis suburbs are receiving federal money for more poor students than they have. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/Special to The Commercial Appeal
In a 2015 photo, a student says goodbye to her friend as the pair board buses for home at the end of a school day at Bartlett Ninth Grade Academy.

Last school year, the small Lakeland district outside Memphis received about $64,000 in Title I funds to help educate poor students. Next year, it’s expecting nearly $427,000.

The Collierville district, 20 miles away, got about $635,000 last year. Next year? It’s expecting more than $3.1 million, a 490 percent jump.

And Germantown will do best of all. That district expects its Title I funds to increase nearly 850 percent to $2.2 million.

But poverty hasn’t risen precipitously in those places, which split off from Shelby County Schools in 2014 to form smaller districts and which have far fewer poor families. A quirk in the rules for allocating those federal funds will give all but Millington a big budget boost next year.

Combined, the five municipalities will receive an extra $7.1 million.

Meanwhile, in what could be described as a cruel irony, Shelby County Schools is set to receive $5 million less in Title I funds than it did last year — in part because of the secession of those six districts.

The changes have flabbergasted local educators.

“Something’s wrong with that equation,” said Deborah Atkins, who lives in Bartlett and teaches in Shelby County Schools. “I know we have (poor) students in the municipalities, but it’s not equitable.”

Those slated to benefit from the extra cash aren’t sure what it all means, either.

“I was surprised,” said Tammy Mason, superintendent of Arlington Community Schools, another one of the municipalities. Arlington is set to receive an extra $897,000. “We don’t have a plan yet.”

The funding shifts are another significant consequence of the tumultuous merger and subsequent de-merger of Memphis’s urban and suburban school districts. They also reveal how the labyrinthine method of allocating Title I money can perpetuate significant inequities.

Chalkbeat asked local, state and federal officials to explain the changes. Here’s what they told us.

Why is Shelby County Schools losing Title I money?

Last year, Shelby County Schools received $65 million in Title I funds. Next year, that number is expected to drop by 8 percent, or $5 million. There are three key reasons why, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

PHOTO: Katie Kull
The Foote Homes housing project, which is scheduled to be razed and redeveloped, has been home to thousands of Memphis families since it was built in the 1940s to serve as low-income housing for African-American families.

One: Shelby County Schools has a smaller share of the nation’s poor.

Title I funding is allocated based on each district and state’s portion of the total number of poor students in the U.S. That means that when poverty in one school district increases faster than in others, it shifts money away from those other districts even if their poverty levels haven’t changed.

And the share of those students living within the boundaries of Shelby County Schools has dropped, from 0.51 percent to 0.42 percent.

Two: The district is now smaller in the eyes of the federal government.

This year was the “first to reflect to creation of the new municipal school districts, which meant that the boundaries for Shelby used in the Census estimates were smaller than those used in the prior year,” according to the U.S. Title I program office.

Three: The new federal education law allows the state to withhold more Title I money from districts.

That money, taken from all Tennessee districts, will be redistributed by the state for school improvement efforts. Since most of the state’s lowest-performing schools are in Memphis, the district can expect to get a good chunk of that back.

Why are those five breakaway districts gaining $7 million?

This year will be the first year the U.S. Department of Education recognizes the six municipal districts in its funding calculations — nearly three years after the smaller districts formed.

That’s because the federal government only updates its list of school districts and boundaries every two years, and calculations about poverty lag another year behind that.

In the meantime, Title I funding for Shelby County Schools and the six municipalities was given to the Tennessee Department of Education as a bulk sum. The state then divided it among the seven school districts based on the percentage of poor students enrolled in food or income assistance programs and a few other criteria.

Now that the federal government recognizes the six municipal districts, a new process has kicked in to establish Title I funding levels.

In the first year of that process, each municipality inherits the student poverty level of the district it broke off from — in this case, Shelby County Schools. This is true even if poverty rates between the districts are drastically different.

State education officials called that policy “counterintuitive” and urged federal officials to reconsider. But the state ultimately accepted the extra funds when federal officials informed them that the money would go to other states if they declined.

Note: Shelby County Schools includes some unicorporated areas outside Memphis city limits
Source: Tennessee Department of Education (2015-16) and American Community Survey (2015)

Over the next three years, the Title I funds sent to the municipalities will gradually decrease to match their own poverty rates.

Source: Tennessee Department of Education

Why is one district losing a bit of Title I funding?

Not all of the municipalities are gaining money out of this policy. Millington’s student poverty rate is significantly closer to Shelby County Schools’ rate, so inheriting the larger district’s numbers didn’t change much.

In fact, the district is slated to lose nearly $128,000 this year. Officials say they have planned for that, and will take about $30,000 from Millington’s reserve fund to help make up the difference.

“We believe we’ll be able to carry on with the things we want to do,” superintendent David Roper said.

Investment strategy

Here are the initiatives Memphis’ education philanthropists will focus on in 2018

PHOTO: Matt Detrich/The Indianapolis Star
A charter leader from Indianapolis, Marcus Robinson is now CEO of the Memphis Education Fund, a philanthropic collaborative that invests in education improvement initiatives for Memphis schools.

A Memphis philanthropic group has shed its “Teacher Town” name but still plans to spend this year recruiting new teachers while also investing in growing the city’s single-site charter operators.

Unlike similar organizations in other cities across the country, the Memphis Education Fund plans to center its search locally — by helping local universities and groups prepare teachers for the challenges of urban education.

Originally called Teacher Town, the fund was created in 2014 by Memphis education leaders and local philanthropists with a goal of transforming Memphis into a destination city for talented teachers. That vision built on a major investment by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to improve teaching in the city.

In 2016, the group adopted a broader goal of improving all schools; brought in a new leader, Marcus Robinson, from Indianapolis; and joined Education Cities, a national collective of local groups seeking to reshape schools in their cities

In part inspired by changes that have taken place in Indianapolis, where Robinson had worked as a charter leader, Education Cities coordinates local groups advocating for the “portfolio model,” a vision in which cities have more charter schools and let district schools operate more like charters.

Robinson told Education Cities a year ago that his next step for Memphis would be “to unite everyone around a common set of operating principles, expectations, and evaluations to create a level playing field for each operator to perform optimally.” This appears to be in line with the portfolio vision, which aims to give all schools flexibility to operate as they see fit, while holding them equally accountability for results.

But instead of bringing the Shelby County Schools district and local charter operators closer together, 2017 saw them waging open competition for students.

For 2018, Robinson is tackling priorities that are not likely to inflame divisions. The fund will continue to focus on principal training, along with helping single-site charter organizations, boosting reading skills among the city’s youngest students, and recruiting new Memphis teachers.

“We’re hell-bent to fill classrooms with teachers,” said Robinson, pointing to elementary schools as having some of the greatest need.

Memphis will need an estimated 3,600 new teachers by 2020, said Lesley Brown, who directs how the fund invests its money to attract, develop and retain talent for local schools.

Rather than recruiting teachers from outside of Memphis, Teacher Town’s original focus, Robinson said the fund is strengthening partnerships with local universities and teacher preparation programs, such as one launched at Rhodes College in 2016 with the help of a $7 million gift from the fund.

The Memphis Education Fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including The Pyramid Peak Foundation and the Hyde Foundation. (Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

Robinson added that the fund also is ramping up its support for single-site charter operators, such as helping teachers implement new literacy curriculum at Memphis Delta Preparatory Charter School and STAR Academy Charter School.

“There’s less of an appetite for national charter organizations to move into Memphis,” he said. ”The next phase isn’t national CMOs (charter management organizations), but how do we encourage single-site schools to evolve.”

The group has doled out such grants to charters as part of a larger effort to boost student reading levels and develop teacher training for Core Knowledge Language Arts and KIPP Wheatley.

“Early literacy is a huge focus,” Robinson told Chalkbeat. “When we look at the test scores, early elementary scores are horrific. What’s the root? Access to quality literacy instruction.”

Paying for school

Sweeping study proposes major changes to the way schools are funded in Michigan

Michigan needs to change the way it funds education so that schools get more money for students who need extra attention — such as those who live in poverty and those who don’t yet have a strong command of the English language.

That’s the top recommendation from a prominent group of educators, policymakers, and business leaders who have been studying Michigan’s school funding system for much of the past two years.

While many states use a complex formula that gives schools more money if they serve children facing extra challenges, Michigan has long used a system that distributes the same amount of money for virtually all students, regardless of their needs.

The state provides some extra funding for students with disabilities — but not nearly enough, according to a state study last year that found schools across Michigan are getting $700 million less a year than they need to serve those students.

The study released Wednesday recommends a major restructuring so that schools would be fully funded for special education programs and would get extra funds to provide resources to students who need extra help. With that money, schools could offer lower class sizes, add counselors and social workers, and give teachers more support, the report says.

The study was conducted by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates on behalf of the Michigan School Finance Research Collaborative.

The collaborative — including top business and education leaders across the state — came together in 2016 after an earlier “school adequacy study” was largely ignored by political leaders.

The earlier study, which was funded by the state legislature, recommended that the state significantly increase the amount of money it sends to schools per student.

The collaborative hopes this new more robust study, which clocks in at more than 300 data-packed pages, will have a greater impact.

Since this study used multiple methods to determine the right funding level for schools, it will be more difficult to ignore, the group hopes.

The study — paid for with $843,000 from major foundations and 18 county school districts — included interviews with hundreds of educators, including district and charters school teachers. Those interviews helped researchers determine how much money schools need to more effectively do their jobs.

The study examined geographic cost differences in different parts of the state, labor cost differences, and other factors and determined that schools need approximately $9,590 each for students who don’t have special needs, including funds that would come from the state and federal governments.

The study recommends that schools get 35 percent more for students living in poverty, between 50 and 70 percent more for students who are learning English, 70 percent more for students with mild disabilities and 115 percent more for students with moderate disabilities.

Among other recommendations in the  report is that charter schools receive the same per-student funding as districts. Currently, the state’s funding system pays some districts more per student than others based largely on historic funding levels as opposed to current needs. Some districts — including most charter schools — are currently getting around $7,600 per child from the state while others get thousands of dollars more

It’s difficult to compare how much funding schools are getting now with the proposed $9,590 per student because schools get a mix state and federal dollars and the $9,590 doesn’t include things like transportation dollars.

The report suggests that the state use a new approach to student transportation in which transportation dollars are distributed differently, taking into account differences between urban and rural school districts.

The report did not put a price tag on the cost of implementing the recommendations and did not spell out how Michigan could come up with the extra money. But members of the collaborative said they hope lawmakers will consider the report as they make policy changes. 

“The issue here is not about whether you live in Farmington or whether you live in Ingham County, it’s about every child ought to have the opportunity to be successful and that ought to be our goal in Michigan,” said Randy Liepa, the Superintendent of Wayne County’s intermediate school district. “I don’t think there will be significant pushback on that.”

The findings were released Wednesday morning, with press conferences planned in Lansing, Grand Rapids, and in the Detroit area.

Read the full report here: