On April 4, a terse letter signed by the heads of the major education lobbying organizations in Washington — teachers unions, school boards, superintendents, principals and governors — landed on the desk of John King Jr., the secretary of education.
It had been less than three weeks since the Senate had confirmed Mr. King, a former high school teacher and education commissioner in New York. Yet as the letter showed, he had already managed to irk the entire school establishment, as well as the Republican majority in Congress. His offense? Trying to make good on a long-unkept promise to the nation’s low-income schoolchildren that they should receive as much education funding as everyone else.
A few months before this clash, Congress had finished renewing the omnibus federal education law known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), after years of difficult negotiation. The next move was for the Education Department to issue regulations detailing how provisions of the law were to be put in place. The department proposed a rule that would require local school districts to give schools enrolling large numbers of poor children at least as much state and local money as other schools — thus prompting the letter.
Equal funding doesn’t sound too crazy, yet many districts currently fall short. Nationwide, districts with high levels of poverty receive $1,200 less per pupil from state and local sources than districts with low levels of poverty.
Marguerite Roza, a Georgetown University scholar, has found that many districts spend up to a third less per pupil in poor schools compared with others. This can happen for various reasons: because wealthy parents unduly influence budget allocations, for example. It can also happen because most teachers are paid using collectively bargained salary schedules that reward longevity. Senior teachers tend to cluster in wealthy schools, while schools where many children are poor often churn through large numbers of novice, badly paid teachers.
But fixing such funding inequities can be expensive, as well as disruptive to longstanding arrangements of which teachers get to be in which schools. That’s why the unions, districts and state leaders wrote the letter urging Mr. King to “refrain from defining terms and aspects of the new law” — the essence of regulation — “especially as it relates to the ‘supplement, not supplant’ provision.”
“Supplement, not supplant” is a key element of the education act, going back to the earliest version of the law, enacted five decades ago as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, and the roots of controversy stretch back that far as well.
The most expensive and important part of the law was (and still is) Title I, which provides federal grants to local school districts based on how many low-income students are enrolled. Districts are required to spend the federal money on the schools where more of the poor children are. The whole point of Title I is that low-income children have extra barriers to learning that require extra resources to overcome.
The authors of the original law were wary of administrators in local districts, many of whom were actively discriminating against minority schoolchildren. Because more than 90 percent of school revenues come from state and local sources, lawmakers worried that districts would play a shell game with new Title I funds — transferring a dollar of local resources to rich schools from poor ones for every new federal dollar earmarked for poor schools that arrived.
A 1969 report from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. found examples of exactly that. As a result, Congress amended the law in 1970 to thwart such maneuvers. It required districts to spend Title I dollars onadditional education for poor children, above and beyond what they already received from other sources — that is, to supplement, not to supplant.
But from the start, the rule proved hard to enforce, since few districts maintain separate bank accounts and accounting ledgers for each school. Under the previous version of the education act, passed in 2001, the Education Department enforced a complicated set of policies that essentially required districts and auditors to posit a counterfactual: How much money would poor students have received without Title I? If state law requires students to be taught for six hours a day, for example, a district couldn’t use Title I funds to teach poor children for the sixth hour, because that would leave them no better off than before.
This requirement proved cumbersome for schools and regulators alike. So lawmakers modified it when they passed the latest version of the law in 2015. They kept the “supplement, not supplant” provision. But districts would no longer have to identify particular services as “supplemental.” And the department was prohibited from requiring a “specific methodology” for distributing state and local funds.
The department’s proposed rule — the one that prompted the lobbyists’ letter — affirmed that districts could decide for themselves how to distribute their money among schools, whether based on head counts, student-to-teacher ratios, a percentage increase over the previous year’s school budget or anything else. However, the result of the methodology had to be that the district spent at least as much state and local money in each Title I school as in non-Title I schools. That had to be the nonnegotiable starting point — otherwise, how could Title I money, by any reasonable definition of the word, be considered “extra”?
The department did not mention teacher salaries, but they make up the bulk of school budgets and would thus be included in calculations of spending.
Normally, teachers unions and school advocates support Democratic politicians and are the mortal enemies of conservative Republicans. Yet this time, they found an enthusiastic supporter in Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee and chairman of the Senate Education Committee. He’s generally opposed to federal regulations of education on principle, regardless of the issue. In this way, left-leaning interest groups like local teachers unions are ideologically aligned with Tea Party Republicans.
The week after the lobbyist letter, Mr. Alexander hauled Mr. King into a public hearing and dressed him down. Citing a different provision, he said, “The law specifically says that school districts shall not include teacher pay when they measure spending for purposes of comparability.” If Mr. King refused to back down, he would encourage states to sue, Mr. Alexander said. The Education Department’s rule is now in a period of public debate by stakeholders.
While the particulars may seem technical, the underlying issue is large. It comes down to whether the federal government will require states and districts that voluntarily accept federal funds to use their own money fairly, a crucial question as students and teachers are held accountable for meeting exacting new educational standards like the Common Core. In late April, a coalition of civil rights organizations, including the N.A.A.C.P, the A.C.L.U., the Children’s Defense Fund and the National Council of La Raza, delivered their own letter to Mr. King, supporting the new rule.
“The original ESEA was a civil rights law,” Mr. King told me, “and President Obama believes the new ESEA builds on that civil rights legacy.”
Mr. King, the child of educators and an orphan by the time he was 12, credits his teachers in New York City public schools for helping him stay on track and achieve success. But even today in Queens, for example, a poor school gets 29 percent less money than a wealthy school nearby, he said, adding it’s unfair, and could mean less art, music and college counseling. “Those things,” he said, “can determine a child’s future.”