Title I is the federal civil rights program created in 1965 as the centerpiece of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to equalize opportunity by sending federal money to schools serving a large number or high concentration of very poor children. The Title I formula has been a primary tool for equalizing educational opportunity as a civil right for every child.
Title I has always been controversial. Does the formula work fairly for schools in urban and rural areas? What regulations will prohibit Title I money’s merely supplanting states’ own investments in education? Are school districts spending their own funds comparably in poor and wealthy schools and then adding on Title I to enrich the poorest schools? Shouldn’t we laser-target Title I funds to schools serving the very poorest children instead of broader distribution to make the program popular in Congress?
In The Ordeal of Equality, a book about Title I, education researchers David Cohen and Susan Moffitt confirm that despite these challenges Title I has made an important contribution: “If we consider where America was in 1965 with respect to the education of disadvantaged children, Title I… delivered funds that were reasonably well targeted to schools with disadvantaged students.... It moved local use of federal funds from diverse and often non-instructional services to instruction, and it did these things without losing political support.”
Today, however, Title I is being redesigned. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) began transforming Title I from a formula program into competitions like Race to the Top (RTTT) and School Improvement Grants (SIG). While the civil rights movement prioritized ensuring every child’s right to equal educational opportunity, the new competitions invite states and school districts to submit grant proposals, and the innovative programs win.
There are reasons to worry about how competitive funding will affect the ongoing operation of public schools. In programs like RTTT and SIG, too little of the money seems to be reaching the classroom. Because one-time grants cannot cover ongoing operations, districts have used the money for technology or staff development but have hesitated to reduce class size or hire teachers. A statewide evaluation determined that consultants and grant writers have collected 35 percent of SIG funds spent in Colorado since 2010. Under the Title I formula local principals and teachers who are close to the community plan programming, but competitions favor the granter’s priorities. The DOE has conditioned its grants on evaluation of teachers based on students’ test scores and controversial turnaround plans including school closure and privatization.
The move to competition has moral implications as well. Races with winners always create losers. Federal support for expanded access to education is becoming a right for poor children only in winning states and school districts. In the latest competition for RTTT, the DOE chose 16 school districts from among 372 applicants to share $400 million. These school districts are relatively small; only 21,000 students will be served. “There are those who would make the case for a Race to the Top for those who can run,” declares the Rev. Jesse Jackson. “Instead ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody. We should be fighting for a common foundation beneath which no child falls.”
The United Church of Christ has 5,194 churches throughout the United States. Rooted in the Christian traditions of congregational governance and covenantal relationships, each UCC setting speaks only for itself and not on behalf of every UCC congregation. UCC members and churches are free to differ on important social issues, even as the UCC remains principally committed to unity in the midst of our diversity.