Ed Week’s David Hoff draws attention to a provision in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that could complicate school districts’ efforts to spend $10 billion in Title I funding provided under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Under NCLB, school districts must provide students with supplemental tutoring or give them the option of transferring to a better-performing public school if they are enrolled in schools that have failed to meet student achievement benchmarks for multiple years. Districts must set aside up to 20 percent of Title I funds for these purposes.
But in practice, many school districts with low-performing schools haven’t actually spent the full 20 percent set-aside on school choice or tutoring (also known as supplemental educational services, or SES). That's in part because of a lack of better-performing schools for students to transfer to, and in part because many districts have done a lousy job of making parents aware of their options under the law. Districts that don’t spend the full set-aside may use that money for other purposes, but they must wait until the following year to do so. With the new infusion of Title I funding, the amount of set-aside money districts are unable to spend is likely to grow. And some observers fear that a delay in spending these funds could undermine their stimulative impact.
Complicating the picture are regulations put in place near the end of the Bush administration that would make it more difficult for school districts to roll over unused set-aside funds and use them for other purposes. Lobbyists for school districts and school administrators are citing the stimulus as a reason that the Obama Administration should undo those regulations and expand waiver authority for districts to use the set-aside funds for things other than public school choice and SES. Education reformers and advocates for low-income children fear that such changes might make it harder for children stuck in poorly performing schools to get the educational supports they need and could reward school districts for bad behavior.
We have a better idea: Maintain the requirement that districts set aside 20 percent of Title I funds for public school choice and SES, but allow them to use that funding for pre-K as well. Don’t allow districts to roll over unspent set-aside funds, but if they can’t or don’t spend the full set aside on choice and SES, require them to use the remaining funds to provide high-quality pre-K for children in neighborhoods. Services could be provided through school-based programs, Head Start, or community-based providers who meet high quality standards (such as employing teachers with bachelor's degrees).