A Magic Show on the Hill: Sleight of Hand With Federal Education Dollars

Skilled magicians understand that the way to make something disappear is to distract the audience’s attention with a dazzling display in one hand, while the other hand slips back behind the curtain. This is exactly what is happening in the debate over the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) currently under way in the Senate HELP Committee. While keeping the public debate focused on the issue of annual testing, the GOP authors of the current ESEA reauthorization proposal are steadily removing protections for children at risk and turning the federal government into a phantom.

Sleight of Hand

The committee’s members have managed to keep testing as the main topic at all three of its hearings—even when the hearing topic wasn’t about testing. And this focus has produced quite the show—the press is eating up the debate and education groups are coming out in force to show their support for annual testing. But while we are focusing on annual testing, we don’t notice the sleight of hand as to where the money will (or won't) go. While we have been watching where the magician is pointing, we’re missing what’s really behind the curtain:

Curtain #1: Title I Portability

Sen. Alexander is proposing to give states the option to make Title I funds “portable”—allowing states to redirect federal funds targeted for schools and districts with high concentrations of poverty to more affluent communities. Today, the Center for American Progress released a report analyzing how money intended for low-income students and communities could be diverted to wealthier neighborhoods under Sen. Alexander’s proposal. According to the report:
The nation’s largest districts could stand to lose tens of millions of dollars. For example, if Illinois opted for portable Title I dollars, Chicago could lose more than $64 million, while the much more affluent suburb of Naperville could see its allocations increase by more than $380,000. In California, students in the Los Angeles Unified School District could lose out on more than $75 million, while the Beverly Hills Unified School District could gain $140,000.

Curtain #2: Maintenance of Effort

Furthermore, the discussion draft eliminates “Maintenance of Effort” (MOE) requirements that are critical to ensuring states and districts keep up their end of the bargain. MOE refers to the federal requirement that states and districts demonstrate that the level of state and local education funding remain relatively constant from year to year, so that no state or district dramatically (or subtly) disinvests in education. For people who are worried about this being an irrational requirement in a time of fiscal crisis, the current law allows for temporary relief in exceptional circumstances. This is another important way to ensure that every student in the state, regardless of race or location, has access to a free public education.

Curtain #3: Targeted Resources

Under the headlines of “flexibility” and reduced paperwork, the draft bill proposes to terminate the authorizations of programs that target resources to such activities as turning around low performing schools, developing and supporting principals, and physical education. Specifically, programs up for elimination include School Improvement Grants, Transition to Teaching, School Leadership, 21st Century Community Learning Centers, Elementary and Secondary School Counseling, and Physical Education programs. But the proposal doesn’t stop there. Advanced Placement, School Dropout Prevention, Arts in Education, Ready-to-Learn Television, Mathematics and Science Partnerships, the Fund for the Improvement of Education would also be eliminated, as would a large number of ESEA programs that have not been funded in several years (e.g., Educational Technology, Even Start, School Libraries). Finally, the draft does not authorize the currently funded and successful—but not authorized (i.e., not in No Child Left Behind)—Investing in Innovation and Promise Neighborhoods programs. A number of education groups came together urging for an ESEA that doubles down on investing in evidence-based grant programs like these. When words like “flexibility” are thrown around, it distracts people from asking, “Flexible for whom?” and “At what cost?” It’s not flexible for the millions of children and educators who will do even more with even less. And that is how skilled magicians put on a show.
Ann Whalen
Ann Whalen is senior advisor to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Prior to returning to the U.S. Department of Education, she served as the director of policy for Education Post. Whalen has served more than five years in the Obama Administration with the U.S. Department of Education. At the department, Ann was director of the Implementation and Support Unit, providing technical assistance to ...

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