State Spending Averages Skew Title I Allocations to Poor Districts

Last Updated: May 26, 2010

This article appeared in the May 2010 Rural Policy Matters.

Jeniece attends school in Macon County, Alabama; her cousin Janelle* goes to school in Boston. Both girls are eight years old. Both are daughters of families that work at least some of the time, but both families struggle on incomes well below poverty level. Since 1965 the federal government has provided funding to local school districts, including Macon County and Boston, to strengthen the educational opportunities of students like Jeniece and Janelle.

The mechanism for providing this extra funding — over and above state and local school support — is Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (known since 2002 as No Child Left Behind). A goal of the program is improved equity for disadvantaged kids in all communities in all states.

But Title I funding is a long way from equitable. For example, Macon County, which is rural, isolated, and high-poverty, gets a Title I allocation of $1,280 for each child whose family, like Jeniece’s, lives in severe poverty. Boston school district, on the other hand, receives $2,495 for children in poverty, children like Janelle. Boston receives almost twice as much federal support for low-income children even though Boston has a lower poverty rate and many more public revenue resources than Macon County.

So why does Janelle garner so much more federal support than Jeniece?

Supporters of the Formula Fairness Campaign and readers of RPM know that one reason for this severe Title I inequity is that the formulas that distribute Title I funding send a lot more money to large districts than to smaller ones — including smaller districts with much higher poverty rates — because of a provision known as “number weighting.” You can read more about the effects of number weighting here, here, and here.

But number weighting is only part of the story. In fact, about one-third of the $1,215 Title I gap between Macon County and Boston is due to number weighting.

The rest is due primarily to differences in the overall per pupil education spending levels of districts in Alabama and Massachusetts. The Title I formula pegs allocations at the district level to the “statewide average per pupil expenditure.” All districts located in states that spend more on education on average get more Title I funding than districts located in low-spending states. And the funding is roughly proportional: the higher the average educational expenditure in the state, the more Title I money that is allocated to individual districts in that state. This is important because statewide spending averages vary dramatically, from a low of $5,521 per pupil in Utah to a high of $16,416 in the District of Columbia, which is treated like a state under Title I.

Title I does put a small brake on the effects of these spending differences. The formula caps the spending amount used in the formula for any state at 120% of the national average per pupil spending. The formula also has a minimum spending amount used for any state that is 80% of the national average. In 2009, average spending in the U.S. for schools was $9,239. So for Massachusetts, which spends much more than average, the Title I spending figure was pegged at $11,087, or 120% of average. For Alabama, which spends much less than average, the Title I spending figure was pegged at $7,391, or 80% of the national average. But even with these maximum and minimum limits, the Title I formula finally pegs Massachusetts’s spending at a figure 50% higher than Alabama’s. It accounts for about two-thirds of the $1,215 difference between Macon County and Boston. 

Janelle’s school in Massachusetts gets a lot more funding from the federal government because Massachusetts is a wealthy state with a long history of supporting education. Jeniece’s school in Macon County (home of historic Tuskegee University), a place where many local residents have worked against huge odds to create educational opportunity, nevertheless gets much less Title I support because Alabama is a poor state and has never invested heavily in public education.

For disadvantaged rural children, the use of statewide spending average to determine Title I allocations is particularly troublesome. Of the 900 rural districts with the highest concentrations of student poverty, most are in low-spending states. In fact, 59% of the 1.3 million children attending these 900 high poverty rural districts are in states that spend less than $8,000 per pupil. Not even one percent of the students in these 900 districts are in states that spend over $11,000.

Some officials say state spending patterns should influence distribution of federal education funds because they reflect real regional differences in the cost of providing educational services. Some of those officials can say it with a straight face. But most acknowledge that differences in state spending are not so much differences in costs but differences in state wealth and political support for education. In other words, higher spending states are generally richer states with widespread political support for funding public education. Lower spending states are poorer and tend to have, historically and currently, less political support for funding good schools for all children. These states tend not to spend much on other public goods and services either, compounding the consequences for poor children of low educational investment.

The federal program designed to bring some measure of educational equity and opportunity to the nation’s poorest children should not distribute its resources in ways that intensify the inadequacies of state funding levels that make such a federal investment necessary to begin with. Jeniece and Janelle are similar children facing similar challenges. They deserve equitable treatment, and so do all other low-income children, rural and urban alike. But for now, the Title I formula operates to heap inequity on top of inadequacy. 

*As far as RPM knows, Jeniece and Janelle are fictional students, representative of real children in real circumstances.

Read more from the May 2010 Rural Policy Matters.