- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Loopholes in federal education law have allowed districts to funnel more state and local money to wealthy schools at the expense of their low-income counterparts, according to a new report released Wednesday by the Education Department.

More than 40 percent of low-income schools don’t get their “fair share,” the report says, despite federal requirements that districts spend “comparable” amounts of money at poorer schools eligible for Title 1 funding.

“Children who need more are getting less,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters Wednesday.

Districts have skirted the rule in part by not including individual teachers’ salaries as part of their calculations. Experienced instructors earning more money often flock to safer, more-affluent schools, while younger teachers making much less tend to end up in poor, inner-city classrooms. That difference in pay is usually not included when districts show spending comparability between schools.

The disparity has led to a misuse of Title 1 dollars, Mr. Duncan said. The money, meant to aid disadvantaged or disabled students, is instead often used by poor schools to close ever-widening budget gaps.

But Mr. Duncan conceded that districts are technically in compliance with federal law as it is currently written. While the administration has used executive authority in recent months to revise the student loan system, Head Start program and other aspects of education policy, Mr. Duncan said that isn’t an option this time. Only action by Congress, he said, can close the loophole and guarantee funding equity to all schools within a district.

A bipartisan education reform bill passed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in October includes a requirement that districts include “actual teacher salaries” in their accounting.

The measure, crafted by committee Chairman Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, and Sen. Michael B. Enzi, Wyoming Republican, awaits a vote on the Senate floor.

“This report confirms that the problem of poor kids getting less than their fair share of state and local resources is real in many places, but it is also of a scope that can be addressed without bankrupting school districts,” Mr. Harkin said in a statement Wednesday.

The average district could fix the problem by redirecting about 1 percent of annual spending, the report states, though such a change would mean a reduction in funds for wealthier schools in a district.

House Republicans are also eyeing adjustments to Title 1 spending. Earlier this year, the Committee on Education and the Workforce passed a flexibility bill designed to allow states and districts more leeway in how they spend federal money, including Title 1 dollars.

The bill, part of a larger education reform package, is awaiting a full House vote and is expected to generate fierce resistance from Democrats, who fear schools will neglect poor, disabled and minority students and spend the money elsewhere.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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