Saturday, May 4, 2024

Should We Voucherize Title I?

Spoiler alert: no, we should not.

However, not everyone agrees, as witnessed by this "policy brief" (aka "blog post with footnotes and letterhead") from Ray Domanico for the Manhattan Institute, the same right-tilted thinky tank that employs Christopher Rufo, chief promoter of critical race theory panic.

Domanico opens with some history. Title I was born of the civil rights movement post Brown v. Board. And if you're wondering why folks on the corporate right aren't fans, it could be that Title I dramatically increased the federal government's share of education funding. In 1957, the feds kicked in 1.3% of K12 district revenue: in 1977, that was 8.1%. In 2021, the percentage temporarily goosed with Covid funs was all the way to 10%. That translates to billions and billions of dollars.

Next up-- a literature review of anything that helps prove Domanico's assertion that Title I has failed in its goal of improving "academic outcomes for the disadvantaged." This assortment of papers from the Manhattan Institute and other right-tilted advocacy groups finds that Title I wasn't working, and that it was even involving things like Whole Language!

But achievement gaps--aka the scores on the Big Standardized Test as distinguished between the poor and the not poor--were not reduced. Therefore, fail. Because education has no purpose except to improve student scores on the BS Test. In fact, as Domanico correctly points out, Title I became another justification for more emphasis on the BS Tests.

Domanico is also not keen on how the Duncan-Obama administration used threats to Title I funding as leverage to push their policies, and I do not disagree, just as I do not disagree of his story that shows imposing Common Core was a big mistake, and if I could find anything from the Manhattan Institute at the time objecting to Common Core I would gladly link to it, but all I can find are pieces like this one, in which the Institute scolds conservatives for opposing Common Core when it's clearly such a worthwhile thing. In other words, Domanico is both correct and about a decade late.

He winds around to arguing that Title I is a mess because its original intention is lost in current ed policy debates and federal overreach is super-unpopular. Also, it didn't fix the test score gap. 

His proposed solution? "Modernize" Title I funding.

Using federal powers to address social inequity and education for all is a policy that "emerged in a political environment that has expired." Federal involvement in educational equity is so last century. 

Now, what you could do, Domanico suggests, is turn the Title I money into vouchers, specifically education savings accounts, where you just hand the money to families and wash your hands of any obligation to try to get them a decent education let them spend the money as they think best. The state's could also fund math and reading tutors, or "distance learning for advanced coursework for lower-income students in rural areas." Because that distance learning thing has been super-popular the last few years.

Of this idea:
The best thing that could happen to Title I is for it to be turned into a national scholarship or tax credit program for lower-income families to use for tuition in the school of their choice.

This was Betsy DeVos's Education Freedom plan, though she at least proposed a national tax credit voucher program without gutting Title I at the same time. But Domanico not only wants vouchers and to end federal funding of Title I, but he wants to be clear that, given recent SCOTUS decisions, private religious schools should get some of those sweet taxpayer dollars. In fact, he likes the idea so much that he sort of botches the wording--

Given recent Supreme Court rulings—clarifying that a state need not offer school choice but if it does, it cannot exclude religious schools—Title I funds should flow directly to religious schools chosen by the families of eligible students, ending the practice of funding local school districts to provide services to eligible religious-school students.

 Flow directly to religious schools? I thought the money flowed directly to the families, thereby avoiding charges that we were using taxpayer funds in violation of the First Amendment. Huh.

In conclusion, he really wants vouchers. Also, the feds should stop using Title I funds as policy leverage.

It's an argument that has been repeatedly made, though this is a rare chance to see it all laid out in one blogpost policy brief. It has the usual feature of so many reformster arguments-- let explain the problem to you in great detail, and then propose my solution while skipping the part where I provide an argument for how my solution actually solves anything. 

It also shows how some folks on the right cannot see what is plain to some other folks on the right. If a big problem with Title I is that federal funds come with federal strings and levers attached, then why would those same strings and levers not stay attached when Title I funds are used as vouchers?

As a sort of tag, Domanico suggests that if the feds won't shape up, maybe a state would like to just reject Title I funding. Because that clearly won't negatively affect any of the high-poverty schools that depend on those dollars. Because maybe Title I, which has all the lumbering clumsiness of any federal program, still provides a bit of a lifeline to underfunded schools and the students in them and would be better off expanded rather than gutted. 

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