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.

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Betsy DeVos laments death of Memphis civil rights leader Dwight Montgomery

PHOTO: Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal
Pastor Dwight Montgomery, president of the Memphis chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, prays with Kellogg workers who filed race-based discrimination complaints in 2014. Montgomery died on Sept. 13 at the age of 67.

The death of a prominent Memphis pastor drew condolences Thursday from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who praised the Rev. Dwight Montgomery for his education advocacy work.

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Betsy DeVos

DeVos issued her statement a day after the death of Montgomery, 67, one of few prominent black civil rights leaders to back the divisive education chief:

“Rev. Montgomery was a steadfast advocate for equality and opportunity for all, especially for students and parents. He knew neither income nor address should determine the quality of education a child receives. Through his work in Memphis and with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, many students and families benefitted from opportunities, both educational and spiritual, they would otherwise have been denied.

We in the education community mourn the loss of his leadership, but most who knew him mourn the loss of their pastor. My prayers are with the faithful of Annesdale Cherokee Baptist Church as they will be the legacy of their shepherd.”

Since 2004, Montgomery had been president of the Memphis chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization founded in 1957 to extend the momentum of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that vaulted Martin Luther King Jr. to national prominence.

In that role, Montgomery backed efforts that would support local Christian schools — including tuition vouchers, which set aside public money for children to attend private schools. Voucher legislation has failed to pass in Tennessee for at least a dozen years, with the hottest bed of opposition in Memphis, where recent bills would have launched a pilot program.

DeVos is a staunch advocate of the policy and has said she would like to incentivize states to create voucher programs, although it is unclear what the Trump administration might do to make that happen.

PHOTO: Tennessee Federation for Children
Dwight Montgomery (second from right) rallied pastors to present a petition in support of vouchers to the Tennessee legislature in 2015.

After DeVos’ confirmation hearings in January, Montgomery wrote a commentary for The Commercial Appeal calling her “a wonderful woman” and “the reform-minded Education Secretary our country needs.”

In Tennessee and Florida, chapters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference have frequently partnered with the American Federation for Children, an organization that DeVos once chaired, to push vouchers as a civil rights issue. In 2015, Montgomery led a group of pastors affiliated with SCLC to the state Capitol to present a petition of 25,000 signatures supporting vouchers.

Montgomery also served as the chairman of the education committee for the Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association.

Most recently, he has supported an effort that DeVos’ boss does not endorse: to relocate a statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from a Memphis park in the wake of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. This week, Montgomery was among more than 150 Memphis religious leaders who signed a letter asking for support from the Tennessee Historical Commission.

devos on tour

The tiny Nebraska private school Betsy DeVos visited today offered some quiet protest

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Betsy DeVos

Talk about an awkward reception.

Nelson Mandela Elementary School is the kind of tiny private school that might benefit from school choice policies that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos supports.

But when DeVos stopped by the Omaha school Thursday as part of her “Rethink School” tour, she encountered a bit of resistance.

From the Omaha World-Herald:

Several teachers and students wore “NE (Heart) Public Schools” stickers.

While Mandela is a private school funded by the Lozier Foundation and William and Ruth Scott Family Foundation, Lozier said in a release that school officials do not support charter schools, which DeVos has championed. The school has a strong cooperative relationship with [Omaha Public Schools], she said.

But make no mistake, Mandela, housed in the former Blessed Sacrament church, is not a charter school. (Nebraska does not allow charter schools.)

“We’re not a charter school and that’s the message we want to hit home today,” she said at a press briefing after DeVos’ visit. “We’re not setting up a conflict or competition between the school systems – public, private, Catholic. We’re all in the business of helping kids learn.”

DeVos, along with her predecessors in the Obama administration, supports charter schools, which are privately operated but publicly funded. When charter schools are allowed, they can put a squeeze on private school enrollment by giving families a free alternative to local public schools.

What DeVos didn’t find at Mandela were active protesters. She got one at her next stop — dressed like a bear.

No protesters were seen before the visit at Mandela. At St. Mary’s, Donna Roller, a former Montessori teacher, showed up to protest in a bear mask. The mask was in reference to DeVos’ statements that guns should be allowed in schools in case of a bear attack.

DeVos headed back to friendlier terrain for her next stop of the day. Hope Academy, a charter school that serves students in recovery from addiction, is in Indianapolis — a city that DeVos has repeatedly praised, in a state whose choice policies reflect her priorities.