Small Districts Can Lose Out With Title I Weighting Formulas

Part of the original 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Title I funds are supplemental funds designated to assist in educating disadvantaged and low-income students. A majority of the funds go to students in first through sixth grade, and they are supposed to be supplemental assistance, meaning the funds do not supplant or replace state and local funding. Districts are entitled to the money but do have to submit a plan detailing how the funds are used. The money allotted to districts is determined using different formulas.

We talked with Marty Strange, policy director for The Rural School and Community Trust, which in turn coordinates the Formula Fairness Campaign, about the four Title I formulas used to distribute money to school districts and their affects on school districts across the country.

Strange briefly explains how each of the formulas work. “To keep it at the very most basic, they [the formulas] have slightly different eligibility criteria, but most schools qualify for what is called the basic grant.” The basic grant requires school have at least 10 disadvantaged students and that 10 constitute at least two percent of the school’s population. “Ninety percent odd school districts in the country qualify for that basic grant,” Strange continues. The basic grant is calculated by taking a fixed amount that Congress has appropriated and dividing it among the eligible districts based on the number of disadvantaged students in the district times the statewide average expenditure of that district’s state. “The first thing to understand is that a Title I student is not worth the same everywhere,” Strange states. “A Title I student in Mississippi is worth about half of what a Title I student in New Jersey is worth because New Jersey spends about twice as much as Mississippi.”

Beyond the basic grant, there’s a concentration grant. Strange describes it as “an early attempt to make the formula more sensitive to high poverty school districts.” The eligibility criteria for the concentration grant are more stringent, with only about half the school districts in the country qualifying for funds under it. A district must have at least 6,000 eligible students or more than 15 percent of the students have to eligible.

Strange explains that while everyone supports the objective of getting more money to high poverty schools, “The criticism of that is that if you have 5,999 eligible students or 14.9 percent eligible students, you get nothing. And the districts that are just one student more or just one-tenth of a percent more get a sizeable grant. So the so-called cliff effect is the criticism of the concentration grant.”

In 1994, Congress added two more formulas to deal with this problem, even though they were not funded until 2002. “These formulas are the controversy that the Formula Fairness Campaign tries to deal with,” says Strange. “The purpose of these formulas was again to get more money to the school districts with the highest concentrations of poverty — and I want to make it very, very clear that we absolutely support that purpose. But the problem is that those two formulas don’t get the job done.” Both of these newer formulas use a weighting system intended to inflate the eligible student count in districts with a high concentration of poverty.

Like the federal income tax system, a series of brackets is used when counting eligible students. “The first number of so many kids that are eligible count as one kid. But if you have more than that, you get kids into the second bracket, and they count as more than one. If you have so many that you get kids into the third bracket, they count as a yet higher number,” Strange explains. “In the end, if you have 1,000 formula students, you might end up with a formula student count that’s 1,800.”

The problem comes in with the discussion of what exactly “highly concentrated” means. In the creation of the two new formulas, some people decided that while highly concentrated could mean a high percentage of something, it could also just mean a high number. So, Congress created two weighting systems in these formulas.

The first system of weighting’s brackets are based on the percentage of kids that are poor or disadvantaged. Strange refers to this system as percentage weighting. “Every school district with 14 percent student poverty is going to have exactly the same weight applied to their students.” Schools with the exact same percentage of Title I eligible students will receive the same weight applied to the students in their brackets.

The other weighting system is the number weighting system. Under this system, the sheer number of students that are Title I eligible are counted. Strange explains, “In the first bracket, there are 691 kids. No matter how big your school district is, the first 691 kids go into the bracket and count as one kid each. Eighty-three percent of school districts in the country don’t have enough kids that are Title I eligible to get out of the first bracket.” This system is only benefits a small number of districts. Strange offers an example: “When you get to the fifth bracket in the number weighting system, you have to have over 35,000 Title I eligible kids — they each count three times. There’s only 16 school districts in the country that have enough kids to get into the fifth bracket under number weighting.”

For any school district, both formulas are calculated, and whichever one the district benefits from more is the one that is used. “You can thin of it this way,” states Strange, “number weighting is for a handful of very large districts and percentage weighting is for everybody else.”

And the problem for everybody else is that there’s a fixed sum of money to be divided among all these districts. “So anything that increases my share, decreases your share,” Strange says. “The miracle of this system, under this dual weighting system, almost everybody gains weight, but that’s not what gets you more money. What gets you more money is gaining share of weight. Your weight can go up, but if other people’s weight goes up proportionally more, they are going to gain money and you are going to lose money.”

According to Strange, number weighting in the formula benefits about 550 school districts and hurts about 10,500. Strange points out, “It doesn’t matter if your school district has a high percentage of poverty. If you’re small you lose; if you’re big, you win.”

Very high-poverty, small districts — such as districts in rural Arkansas, rural Mississippi and rural South Dakota — lost money. Strange explains that some of the money goes to places we would expect: Philadelphia, Chicago, L.A. — high-poverty urban districts. But that money also goes to places like Fairfax County, Va., a very low poverty district (about six percent poverty), but with a large number of students. Rural districts aren’t the only ones hurt by this. Small high-poverty urban districts like Flint, Mich., Laredo, Texas, Reading, Penn. — districts with poverty rates at or above Detroit or the Bronx — lose money because they’re not big districts. According to Strange, Rochester, N.Y., is one of the biggest hit. They lose about $2.6 million because of number weighting.

While districts are losing out in Title I funding, competitive grants do not seem to be an adequate way to get money to high poverty school districts in rural areas because of their lack of resources. “They don’t have the capacity to compete,” Strage explains. “The I3 grants — it’s the same story there. Those small rural districts have to compete with the city of Chicago Public Schools, which has a development department that has more grant writers than many of those districts have personnel.”

The future of Title I funding is uncertain, especially with the impending changes in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. When Congress takes up the reauthorization, these formulas will be reviewed, but with the trend towards competitive grants, funding could end up decreasing over time.

For more information on the Formula Fairness Campaign and how rural and urban districts are losing out, please visit their Website.