Many Highest Poverty Districts Would Be Better Off If Congress Had Not Tried to Help Them

Last Updated: May 29, 2011

This article appeared in the May 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

Nearly one in four of the schools districts with the highest student poverty rate would be better off if the formula for distributing federal funds for the education of disadvantaged students made no effort to target that funding to high-poverty districts.

Funding for disadvantaged students is provided under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The formula contains a weighting system designed to artificially inflate the count of disadvantaged students in school districts that have “high concentrations” of student poverty. The purpose is to increase the share of the funding that goes to these school districts.

But the weighting system is flawed by a provision that inflates the student count on the basis of the sheer number of Title I students in a district, no matter how small that group is as a percentage of the total student population. Another weighting system based on percentage of disadvantaged students is also used in the formula. The student count for every district is calculated using both approaches — “number weighting” and “percentage weighting.” The higher of these two student counts is the student count used for that district to determine its share of Title I funds.

In general, the “number weighting” system as designed is so much more powerful that the “percentage weighting" system that funding is reduced in smaller districts no matter how high their poverty rate and increased in larger districts no matter how low their poverty rate.

That means that districts with large numbers of Title I students soak up a bigger share of the Title I funding, reducing the funds available for small districts, even those with higher poverty rates.

Analysis done by the Rural School and Community Trust using 2009 data from a Congressional Research Service study indicates that only two of the 340 school districts with the highest disadvantaged student rate nationally benefit from the number weighting provision. In fact, 281 of these highest poverty districts would be better off if all districts had their student eligibility count weighted using only the percentage and not the number of disadvantaged students. Fifty-seven districts merely break even with the addition of number weighting.

But what is truly astonishing is that 83 of the 281 highest poverty districts who are hurt by the presence of number weighting in the formula are hurt so badly that they would be better off if there were no weighting system at all — neither number weighting or percentage weighting. These districts would be better off if Congress had not tried to target districts with “high concentrations” of poverty.

Visit the Formula Fairness Campaign to learn more about the problems of number-weighting in the Title I formulas and what you can do to help make them fairer to high-poverty small and mid-size school districts.

Read more from the May 2011 Rural Policy Matters.