Portability cheats poor kids ESEA is supposed to help

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As Congress eyes reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, one idea that's still very much in play is the notion that states should be allowed to opt out of the current system of Title I funding that is targeted to help poor children and, instead, distribute the same amount per student to districts based on a count of those children inside their boundary lines.

It's called Title I portability, and "ESEA Reauthorization: Robin Hood in Reverse," a new report from the Center for American Progress, illustrates how warped and misguided it is—a sure recipe for shifting resources away from high-poverty districts to wealthier ones, an approach that runs opposite ESEA's core mission.

The Center for American Progress uses 2014 allocations for school districts to show that districts with high concentrations of poverty could lose an average of about $85 per student, while the most affluent districts could gain, on average, $290 per student. Still, the idea remains a real threat under reauthorization of ESEA, known in its current version as the No Child Left Behind Act. Portability is included in a version of the law drafted by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chair of the influential Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and has been touted in both chambers as a fair approach to funding. CAP shatters that myth in the starkest terms:

"If Illinois opted for portable Title I dollars, Chicago could lose more than $64 million, while the much more affluent suburb of Naperville could see its allocations increase by more than $380,000. In California, students in the Los Angeles Unified School District could lose out on more than $75 million, while the Beverly Hills Unified School District could gain $140,000 dollars. These patterns are similar for every state."

Why does this happen under portability? One big reason, CAP points out, is that portability "ignores the fact that concentrated poverty has a significant negative impact on students beyond their own economic circumstances. Ultimately, portability weakens the ability of Title I dollars to combat the adverse effects of poverty."

"At its root, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is about leveling the playing field and ensuring all kids have equal access to resources—from computers to counselors—no matter whether their community can afford them," AFT President Randi Weingarten stressed. "This report from the Center for American Progress shows in stark dollar amounts the damage that the House and Senate Republican proposals could do. … In short, these proposals undermine the very kids ESEA is meant to help."

[Mike Rose, AFT press release]