When national politicians and lobbyists argue we should spend more money on K-12 education, they’re almost always talking about increasing allocations for a federal funding stream called “Title I,” which supplements state and local education funding for low-income students.
Indeed, in July the House Appropriations Committee passed a bill that would allot $36 billion in order to address vast proficiency gaps that primarily affect children from needy households. Along with the three pandemic rescue packages passed earlier this year, this education budget will double how much the federal government typically spends in a fiscal year, providing the biggest boost ever for American schools.
What exactly is Title I?
Title I is one of the federal funding streams that supplements how much money each state allocates for schools. There are other “Title” funds too, I-VII, all aiming to aid students who have burdens that may get in the way of accessing an equitable education. These burdens include poverty, homelessness, living in state-run institutions, living in isolated rural districts, and those still learning the English language. (There is a separate funding stream for students with disabilities.)
According to the U.S. Department of Education, Title I was created “to ensure economically disadvantaged children receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education, by helping to close academic achievement gaps.”
An important phrase we use when talking about Title funds is “supplement, not supplant.” That means that states can’t use the federal money as a substitute for local and state school funding, just as an addition. Also, Title funds are part of the larger group of “entitlement programs” that require the federal government to give payments to states or people who meet eligibility requirements. For example, social security and veteran’s compensation are entitlement programs.
How big is Title I and how did it start?
Title I is the largest federal aid package for schools in America. Almost all of it goes to public schools, although students enrolled in private schools or who homeschool are also eligible. It originated as part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” (The bill was reauthorized during the George W. Bush administration as No Child Left Behind and during the Obama Administration as the Every Student Succeeds Act. For more on the law, see our explainer, The ABC’s of ESEA, ESSA and No Child Left Behind.)
Whatever the name, this federal law makes equitable funding not just the responsibility of individual states, but the responsibility of the federal government too. Title I funding is directed at low-income students who are disadvantaged in public schools because they may not have had all the educational benefits enjoyed by children from higher-income families. The intent is that, with the extra support provided from additional funding, these children will meet high academic standards also required by federal law.
Historically, the actual amount of Title I money received by schools for low-income students is very small, about 5% of annual per-pupil spending (although it varies by geography).
How does a student qualify for Title I funds?
The federal government divides low-income children into two groups: free lunch and reduced lunch. If a family is living at 130% above the federal poverty line or below, the children in that family are eligible for lunch at no cost. If a family is living at up to 185% above the poverty line, the children in that family are eligible for lunch at a reduced cost. In order to receive this benefit, parents or guardians must fill out an application with information about family size and income. This is typically referred to as “targeted assistance.”
How does a school district qualify for Title I funds?
That’s right, a whole school district can be eligible for Title I funds.
If a district finds, through targeted assistance or parent applications, that a minimum of 10 students per school, or at least 2% of school-age children in the district, are eligible for free or reduced lunch, then the district receives a grant of Title I money which is sent from the federal government to the state department of education. The district must use this supplemental funding for research-based strategies to improve achievement for those students (typically instruction and professional development). The district also has to explain how it will promote parent involvement in its Title I program.
In 2010 the Obama administration added an eligibility option through the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act called a Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). Under CEP, if 40% of a district’s students are “directly identified” as eligible for free lunch (a stricter way of certifying a family’s poverty status), all students in that district, regardless of family’s income, are eligible for free lunch.
Additionally, if a school district is eligible through CEP, the whole school is eligible for compensatory funding, even kids in the school who aren’t low-income. In this case, all teachers, aides, and administrators focus on raising the achievement level of all students.
This is an important distinction:
If a school is receiving Title I money through the targeted assistance program, the extra funds are solely for low-income students.
If a school is receiving Title I money for the whole school, it can use the funds to reform the entire educational program of the school.
There are many ways a district can use Title I money, from extra training for teachers to purchasing one-on-one devices for eligible students to implementing new literacy programs to enhancing community engagement.
How do schools calculate which kids are low-income?
The federal government gives schools a choice of five ways: They can use the number of school-age children identified in the most recent census as “low-income”; they can use the number of children who qualify for free and reduced lunch under the National School Lunch Program; they can use the number of children who receive TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families); they can use the number of children eligible for Medicaid; or they can use the Community Eligibility Provision described above.
How many K-12 students in America receive Title I funds?
A lot! Right now more than half of all American schoolchildren — about 25 million — in about 60% of American public schools receive some Title I funding. Remember, if a school is designated a Title I school, then all the children, low-income or not, are eligible for supplemental programming.
But it’s not all that much money, even though in 2020 the U.S. government sent out almost $16 billion in Title I grants to school districts. Depending on a variety of factors, this can come out to only $500-$600 for each low-income student per year, although large cities and remote rural districts get more.
What is the Biden administration doing differently?
During President Joe Biden’s campaign, he pledged to dramatically increase federal funding for schools and address nationwide inequities. One of the primary ways the legislature has fulfilled that pledge is through the American Rescue Plan Act which includes eight times the usual Title I funding distributed by the federal government each year.
The reason for this expansion of funding is primarily to help students recover from learning loss incurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been borne disproportionately by low-income children and children of color. Will this surge of funding be transformational in providing historically marginalized students with the tools they need to be educationally successful? Or will it be frittered away?
Only time will tell.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR ACTIVISM
In many cases, school districts are dependent on parental involvement to receive Title I money. Yet sometimes parents are intimidated by the process, which may require them to submit an application to schools. For example, if a child is eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program through targeted assistance, parents have to fill out a two-page form that asks the names and grades of their children who attend school, parents’ sources of income, and whether they already qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). (If families qualify for SNAP or TANF their children automatically qualify for free lunch.)
Intimidation is more likely if parents are undocumented, even though school districts never notify authorities about immigration status. Sometimes families are fearful and don’t complete the paperwork, resulting in less funding for their children.
What can you do as an education activist?
Make Sure All Eligible Children Are Getting The Services They Deserve
It’s easy for districts to register for Title I benefits when 40% of children in a school qualify for free/reduced lunch. But if fewer than 40% qualify, the district must submit additional paperwork to qualify individual children for “targeted assistance.” Urge parents to advocate for this assistance — which makes their children eligible not just for lunch, but for supplemental educational services — and insist their district does right by their kids.
No, You Cannot Be Deported For Completing Free/Reduced Lunch Paperwork
Educate and reassure reluctant parents that filling out the application for free and reduced-price lunch will have no impact on their immigration status. Point them to this official statement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture:
Getting nutrition assistance through the Food and Nutrition Service does not make an immigrant a "public charge." That is, an immigrant to the United States will not be deported, denied entry to the country, or denied permanent status because he or she receives food stamps, WIC benefits, free and reduced-price school lunches or other nutrition assistance from FNS.
Help Parents Complete the Steps Necessary to Get Services for their Children
You can help parents obtain the paperwork (which can be done online or on hard copy) from the district. While districts distribute the forms in the beginning of the school year, parents can apply at any time.
You can make sure the forms are delivered to the district.
Ensure District Are Fulfilling Their Responsibility to Involve Parents
The federal government requires that 1% of Title I money be spent on involving parents in their children’s education. Find out whether your school district is doing so and whether their efforts are effective. If they’re not, speak up! This is a team effort that requires the voices of school leaders, teachers, and parents.
The money targeted for marginalized children is at stake. Your activism can lead to extra funding for some of our neediest families.