Details of ESSA Funding Cause Friction in Congress

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

A fierce debate has erupted over how best to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act, which was signed by President Obama late in 2015 after sailing through Congress with bipartisan support.

Republican lawmakers are accusing the Department of Education, headed by Secretary John King, and in turn, the Obama administration, of overstepping its authority. The debate began when a panel of educators, advocates, and officials from the Education Department began pouring over the specifics of how to best implement the law.

One issue in particular snared the panel in a partisan back-and-forth: a complex spending policy known as "supplement not supplant." This policy ensures states and districts that receive federal money for their poorer students through a program known as Title I don't use that money to displace the funding they would already be doling out to schools in need. The "supplement not supplant" has been part of education policy since 1969 when a controversial report showed some school districts were spending their federal dollars on things like swimming pools.

The present-day controversy, according to Lauren Camera of US News, deals with a regulation proposed by the Education Department that would require states to demonstrate that students in schools that receive Title I money are getting at least as much state and local funding as schools that don't receive Title I money. The Department of Education wants to equalize the amount of money going to schools with different socioeconomic backgrounds.

The proposal has evoked the backlash of Republican lawmakers and conservative activists who argue that the Education Department is trying to restructure states' education policies; much of their argument has been documented by Jason Russell of The Washington Examiner. These lawmakers allege that the goal of the Every Students Succeeds Act is to rein in the federal government, not have it serve as an arbiter. Even teachers unions, as noted by Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine, have cautioned the Education Department about federal overreach.

Secretary King, however, has won the support of the civil rights community and congressional Democrats, who believe that it is the responsibility of the federal government to ensure that the most disadvantaged students are given as many opportunities and rights as their wealthier peers. Research shows that schools with high concentrations of poor students have less access to good teachers, rigorous courses, and robust social services. Increased federal funding could level those disparities.

"With the majority of our nation's public school children living in low-income households, the Department of Education has a responsibility to do everything it can within the law – through effective regulations and robust oversight – to ensure that states and districts are taking steps to mitigate the crippling effects of poverty and resource inequities in our nation's public schools," said a letter to Secretary King signed by nine Democratic senators.

The ruling committee has not yet come to an agreement about the proposal. It has let the Education Department determine what kind of language, specifically "supplement not supplant," will be in the final proposal. So far, The Education Department has not signaled what course it intends to the in drafting the final package.

"We're still considering exactly how to move forward," King said this week during a roundtable with reporters. "But we start from what I think is a pretty simple assumption: If Title I schools are being systematically shortchanged before federal dollars arrive, then those dollars are not truly supplemental."

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