Republican Senators Push Bill That Would Let States Shortchange Low-Income Students

Our guest blogger is Theodora Chang, Education Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Sens. David Vitter (R-LA), James Inhofe (R-OK), and Jim DeMint (R-SC)

Earlier this month, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) introduced the “Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success (A-PLUS) Act,” which is co-sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX), Tom Coburn (R-OK), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), James Inhofe (R-OK), Ron Johnson (R-WI), and David Vitter (R-LA). The bill is being touted as a way to help close achievement gaps by increasing spending flexibility and reducing regulations.

While the bill may fulfill legislators’ longtime goal of reducing federal influence in education, it will also widen achievement gaps rather than close them. The challenges we face in education are much more complicated than legislators make them seem. The A-PLUS Act would compound these existing challenges by allowing states to consolidate federal funding streams targeted towards high-poverty schools.

Among other issues, funding consolidation would significantly impact Title I — the federal government’s largest and most critical education program for low-income students. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) currently allows great flexibility for states to consolidate funds from different programs and transfer additional money into Title I. They are not allowed to transfer funds out of Title I.

This would change under the A-PLUS Act, as states would be able to transfer funds out of Title I and into any other programs that might nominally benefit some low-income students. Therefore, the A-PLUS Act places a lot of faith in the ability of states to make wise education decisions:

“I believe local educators and parents are best equipped to make important decisions for their schools,” said Senator Cornyn. “Our legislation gives states flexibility to institute educational programs that suit the needs of their students and school districts.”

The sad fact is that states don’t always take actions to support their most vulnerable children. Texas officials recently battled over whether education money should be used to actually provide education services to children, a standoff that ended after nine long months. As budget cuts force increasing numbers of states to wrestle with funding challenges, federal Title I funds must remain a stable source of funding for students who have the least access to resources.

The existing ESEA already has loopholes that shortchange low-income students — we need to close them instead of creating new ones. Funding flexibility can be an asset if it is carefully designed to improve the educational opportunities of low-income students, and there are certainly ways to strive for more equity without more red tape. The A-PLUS Act misses this mark, and thus deserves no less than a failing grade.