If progressives get their way, the nearly $200 billion in COVID-19-relief funding that has been distributed by the federal government to K–12 school districts over the past year will merely be the down payment for a more expansive federal role in public education.
The Biden administration’s budget proposal, released last month, would more than double federal Title I spending for K–12 education, using $20 billion in new “equity grants” to incentivize states to change the way they allocate their own education dollars to “help address long-standing funding disparities between under-resourced school districts and their wealthier counterparts.”
Under the program, states would need to demonstrate progress in improving the equity and adequacy of their school-finance formulas to be eligible for future funding increases. In addition, $50 million would be set aside to establish state school-funding equity commissions to develop action plans and report on progress.
While it’s true that many states desperately need to modernize their K–12 education-funding systems, it’s hard to believe that federal policy-makers are up to the task or should be involved. After all, the federal government’s own education-funding mechanisms suffer from many of the same problems plaguing the states, including arbitrary allocations and top-down mandates that tie the hands of local school leaders.
Further expanding the federal government’s role in education funding would simply guarantee that more federal taxpayer money would be poured into states’ outdated and unfair K–12 funding systems for years to come. And, unfortunately, any hope that the funding would actually improve student success is just wishful thinking.
While large portions of state budgets go toward education funding, the federal role in K–12 public schools is somewhat limited, with state and local dollars still covering more than 92 percent of education revenues. Since 1990, however, the federal funding amount in real dollars per pupil has nearly doubled — with few student-achievement improvements to show for it.
Just look at the federal government’s track record with Title I spending, which, at $16.5 billion annually, is currently the Education Department’s largest grant program. Research consistently shows that Title I has failed in its aim to close achievement gaps for America’s low-income students since its inception in 1965. Yet President Joe Biden’s proposed budget would increase Title I spending to $36.5 billion annually and add layers of red tape and bureaucracy for state and school-district officials to navigate.
Although most of the plan’s details are still murky, it is eliciting comparisons to former President Barack Obama’s often-criticized Race to the Top program, which provided financial inducements aimed at encouraging states to overhaul their standards and assessments, among other things.
Though a new methodology would be established to distribute the equity grants, the Biden administration has yet to signal a willingness to reform the federal government’s own convoluted Title I funding formulas. The current formulas are riddled with complexity, including political provisions that have nothing to do with students’ needs. For example, states are guaranteed a minimum amount of funding even if their share of Title I–eligible students doesn’t warrant it. As a result, Title I dollars are delivered like buckshot, ranging from Idaho getting $984 per eligible student to Vermont getting $2,590 per eligible student — 163 percent more per pupil than Idaho. Title I spending needs to be fixed, not increased.
To be sure, reforms that improve school-finance systems and boost academic achievement — especially outcomes for low-income students — are desperately needed. But even advocates of increasing education spending should be skeptical about giving the federal government a more prominent role in K–12 education funding.
It’s clear that the Biden administration sees an opportunity to enshrine a larger federal role in public-education funding. But this isn’t the path to improving student achievement or achieving funding equity. Federal lawmakers should get their own house in order by addressing Title I’s numerous problems rather than encroaching on state education-funding issues.
Aaron Smith is the director of Education Reform and Christian Barnard is an education-policy analyst at Reason Foundation.