For fifty years Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) has been the primary source of federal funding targeted to schools to serve poor children. Its purpose has been to raise achievement for poor children through extra support to their schools to help meet their greater educational needs. Sadly, from the beginning states didn’t keep their end of the bargain.
In 1969, the Washington Research Project (the Children’s Defense Fund’s parent organization) and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. partnered with others and examined federal audit reports on how Title I funds were being used and talked to numerous federal, state, and local officials and community leaders and parents about how those critical funds were being spent. Our report, Title I: Is It Helping Poor Children?, found the answer to our question was a resounding “No.” Rather than serving the special needs of poor and disadvantaged children, many of the millions of dollars Congress appropriated had been wasted, diverted, or otherwise misused by state and local education agencies. Title I funding was often being used as general aid and to supplant—rather than supplement—state and local education funds, including for construction and equipment unrelated to Title I goals. For example, Fayette County, Tennessee used 90 percent of its Title I funds for construction of a predominantly Black school despite a recent federal court order that the school system desegregate, and Memphis, Tennessee used Title I funds to purchase 18 portable swimming pools in the summer of 1966.
The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) subsequently conducted several other major studies that reinforced the importance of federal accountability for money targeted to help children most in need, especially poor children and children of color. In CDF’s first report, Children Out of School in America (1974), after knocking on thousands of doors in census tracts across the nation and interviewing many state and local school officials, we found that if a child was not White, or was White but not middle class, did not speak English, was poor, needed special help with seeing, hearing, walking, reading, learning, adjusting, or growing up, was pregnant at age 15, was not smart enough, or was too smart, then in too many places school officials decided school was not the place for that child.
We should learn from and correct our mistakes and stop repeating them over and over again for our children’s sake. It is crucial that a strong Title I program reach the children in areas of concentrated poverty if and when ESEA is reauthorized. Unfortunately the House Education and Workforce Committee, charged to lead in moving an ESEA reauthorization bill in the House of Representatives, just approved a bill (H.R. 5) in a party line vote that fails to target the needs of the poorest children by adding a “portability” provision assuring these children less help. AASA, The School Superintendents Association, and many others join us in opposing the portability provision.
The portability provision in H.R. 5 would move us backwards by distributing the same amount for a poor child regardless of the wealth of the district or school she attends. This will unravel the intent of Title I by taking resources away from children in areas of concentrated poverty and offering extra resources to schools and districts with a few poor children who may not need them. The poorest students in schools with the highest concentrations of poor children need extra help to combat poverty’s barriers. Compounding this huge backwards step, H.R. 5 also removes strong accountability provisions required to make sure the children who need help most will actually be helped.
It is morally indefensible and extraordinarily expensive that we have 14.7 million poor children in our country—6.5 million of them living at less than half the poverty level. All of these poor children exceed the combined residents in all 50 state capitals and the District of Columbia. That more than 80 percent of Black and almost 75 percent or more of Latino public school students are unable to read and compute at grade level in 4th and 8th grades and, if they reach 9thgrade, 3 in 10 do not graduate within four years is a cause for extreme alarm and focused attention. Without targeted federal funding with accountability, the poorest children will lose out.
Poor children are not the only ones at educational risk. Special measures are needed to protect English language learners, children and youths with disabilities, children of color, and children and youths who are homeless or in our child welfare and juvenile justice systems. States and school districts must target resources to address achievement gaps for these vulnerable groups of children. The federal government must hold states accountable for making sure they make progress towards grade level achievement targets, high school graduation, and college and career preparation.
The mistakes of the past should not be repeated and children and our nation need us to move forward, not backwards. No ESEA bill is better than a bill that has poor children subsidize the education of wealthier children. It is way past time for us to level the educational learning field for all children, especially those left behind.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to staging.childrensdefense.org.
Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.