Poorer Smaller Districts Lose Out in Stimulus

Last Updated: April 01, 2009

This article appeared in the March 2009 Rural Policy Matters

Some $10 billion for schools in the federal stimulus package is being distributed through formulas that provide less funding per poor student to some school districts than others. Rubbing salt in that open sore is the fact that many of the districts that get less actually need more support for students because they have higher poverty rates—sometimes much higher—than districts that get more funding.
For example, the Dillon 02 district in South Carolina gets $1,057 and has a student poverty rate of 38.50%. But Greenville, one of the largest and least poor school districts in this poor state, gets $1,467 per eligible student and has a poverty rate of 13.8%.
If the name Dillon, South Carolina rings a bell, it is probably because it is the home community of fourteen-year-old Ty’Sheoma Bethea whose eloquence about the challenges of students in very under-funded schools captured the attention of the media and the president last month when she wrote a letter asking for help to repair her school’s wretched facility. That letter earned Bethea a trip to the Capitol for President Obama’s February address to Congress. But it didn’t garner the help for her school that Bethea sought and it didn’t change the federal outlay of funding for schools, and their students, struggling in the most desperate conditions.
That’s because the portion of the stimulus funding targeted to the lowest-income students, Title I funding, is distributed through just two of the four Title I formulas. Those two formulas, the Targeted formula and the Education Finance Incentive Grant (EFIG), “weight” a district’s student count. That is they provide additional money to districts with larger total numbers of poor students.
Smaller districts with higher percentages of poor students often get less per student because there are simply a smaller total number of those students.
While rural districts shoulder much of this inequity, they are by no means the only districts affected by it. Take these districts as example: Reading, Pennsylvania’s schools get $1,653 per poor student and Philadelphia’s gets $2,469. Think Philadelphia’s schools are poorer? Think again. Almost 35% of Reading’s students live in serious poverty, compared to 31.7% in Philadelphia.
That story plays again in Fresno, where 32.4% of students are poor and the district gets $1,341 for each of them in Title I stimulus. But in Los Angeles, where 23.1% of students are poor, each one gets $2,053 in Title I stimulus.
In one of the more striking contrasts, Chicago gets $1,960 for each poor student, but schools in East St. Louis, Illinois get just $810 even though 44% of students live in serious poverty in East St. Louis compared to 26.9% in Chicago.
The poorest 800 rural districts enroll almost a million students and have an average poverty rate of 35.52%. They get a little over $1,200 per poor student in Title I stimulus. Among the seven urban districts with the largest enrollment of poor students, only Detroit has a higher poverty rate than the rural 800 and all seven get more per poor student in Title I funding—in both the regular federal budget and the stimulus package.
It hasn’t always been this way. Number weighting was only implemented with the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 2002 (the same reauthorization that instituted the No Child Left Behind requirements).
Per-pupil funding can be problematic for small districts because their relatively small numbers of students mean they often don’t accumulate enough funding in any category to cover their costs. In addition, poor rural districts have very few ways to raise revenues locally and they face serious economic challenges that predate, usually by decades, the current recession, so Title I funding is a life line.
Smaller districts deserve as much support as any other district for their most significantly challenged students. It’s time the Title I inequities were resolved, not replicated.

Read more from the March 2009 Rural Policy Matters.