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In a time of austerity, Title I changes cause consternation in schools

Trying to target more resources to the neediest schools, officials recalculated poverty levels and allocations. As a result, some schools gain and others lose funds.
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    Photo: School District of Philadelphia

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Superintendent William Hite has made it clear that he wants to target the most money he can to the neediest schools in the Philadelphia – those with very high poverty and low academic performance.

Doing this is crucial to improving achievement and giving underserved students better opportunities, Hite has said. Schools with the highest concentrations of poverty, he reiterates, need extra resources to overcome the toughest challenges.

But in Philadelphia, where all schools have been operating for the last several years in a mode of punishing austerity, need is a relative term.  And recent moves to change how the District distributes Title I dollars, its largest chunk of federal money, have left several schools protesting that they are unfairly being left worse off than before. 

Most of these schools are the “less poor,” which in Philadelphia means half the students are in poverty, instead of four-fifths.

Parents from Fox Chase Elementary School in the Northeast held a rally earlier this month in front of their school, asking to “get back the money” that they have lost. In March, Robin Dominick, a parent from Powel Elementary in Powelton, told the School Reform Commission that loss of Title I funds made it difficult to provide extra help to the neediest students, including some who are homeless.

But the school that probably has the most right to be upset is Carnell Elementary in the Northeast. About two-thirds of the roughly 1,000 students at the K-5 school fall under the poverty level, but Carnell will nevertheless lose $393,000 next year, by far the biggest hit in the city.  

Carnell's poverty rate for next year is calculated as 65.51 percent; if it were 65.60 percent -- the point at which a steep drop-off in aid occurs under the District's tiered system for distributing aid -- it would get about $360,000 more. That is a difference of one or two students at most.

District Chief Financial Officer Matthew Stanski says that he sympathizes: The choices are tough and the cutoffs must occur somewhere.

The Title I situation “is shining a light on the lack of resources that all schools are facing,” he said. The upset parents “are looking for alternatives to offset a basic lack of services every school has in the city, and they are looking at something they had a couple of years ago, and this is just another thing that has been taken from them.”

In most districts, Stanski agrees, Fox Chase and Powel would be considered high-poverty schools. "Philadelphia is unique," he said. "Here, 40 to 50 percent poverty is low."

Title I, the federal education aid program targeted to poor and low-achieving schools, is meant to supplement other funding sources and address resource inequities that result from state and local taxing policies. While the federal goverment sets the funding levels, states and districts have discretion how to allocate the money.
 

Schools in Philadelphia have used the funds for a variety of purposes. They help pay for full-day kindergarten, for instance, which is not state-mandated. Most schools use Title I funding to hire more teachers and support staff, to reduce class size, or provide extra tutoring.

Historically, Philadelphia has gone back and forth on how to allocate its share. At one time, it simply set a cutoff – at times, any school with a poverty rate below 80 percent got nothing.

What's changed over the last several years is the steep decline in funds, not just in general, but in the Title I program. In 2013-14, federal stimulus money disappeared, blowing a huge hole in the School District's budget because the state of Pennsylvania did not replace the money.

But Title I funds shrank as well, the result of "sequestration," the federal policy to cut the federal budget across the board absent congressional votes on specific cuts. Philadelphia's share of the Title I funds went from around $240 million to about $130 million today. 

That has been coupled with decisions to substantially revise how the money is distributed and how poverty is measured.

First, the District last year ended the practice of giving all schools, regardless of their poverty level, at least a guaranteed baseline level of $125,000. Schools like Powel and Fox Chase saw their big drop in funds then as a result of this practice.

"We looked at what schools were impacted if we kept the $125,000 floor," Stanski said. "We realized that schools with very high poverty took heavy losses."

So they removed the floor and divided schools into five tiers based on their poverty level, allocating a different per-student amount to each tier, a method modeled after federal guidelines. On top of that, the District revamped how it calculates poverty rates. It now matches enrolled students with eligibility for public assistance, food stamps, and Medicaid. The old system extrapolated poverty rates based on census data in the school attendance zone.

Under the new system, all schools have seen their poverty rates go down -- the range changed from 46 to 97 percent this year to 19 to 84 percent for next year. But some have gone down more than others. 

Combined, these changes are resulting in huge swings in Title I aid for some schools projected for the coming year. 

Schools like Fox Chase and Powel with relatively low poverty levels -- anything less than 57.14 percent -- will get $150 in aid per student. Those in the next highest tier, with a poverty rate up to 65.60 percent, will get $200 per student. Above that, the amount zooms to $560 per student, then $570 – and all the way to $670 per student for the most impoverished schools, those with a poverty rate of 76.61 percent or above.

In addition, for most schools, there is a multiplier of 1.6 to account for poverty concentration.

Plus, the District has set aside 20 percent of its allocation for "focus," and "priority" schools, those deemed low-performing by the Pennsylvania Department of Education's school rating system. The priority schools get an additional $473 per student and focus schools an additional $363. 

All this means that a high-needs school can get 20 times the amount of Title I aid as a lower-poverty school of the same size. Seventy District schools receive a half-million dollars or more from Title I.

Stanski said that in making all these changes, the District sought to minimize the impact on most schools. Overall, 131 schools will gain resources from Title I while 87 will see declines in next year's budgets. For 114 schools, the fluctuations will be less than $25,000. For 141 schools, the fluctuations will be less than $50,000.

But 18 schools will lose $100,000 or more, while 14 schools gain $100,000 or more.

It is all confusing and disheartening, said parent Rob Tevis of the Fox Chase Home and School Association. Tevis said that by his calculations, Fox Chase should be getting a lot more than it is now -- just $50,000.

"Part of the reason we marched is a lack of transparency about Title I money," he said. Fox Chase dropped from 76 percent poverty to 44 percent poverty under the new calculations, but even so, is getting about the same amount per student. 

City Council candidate and education activist Helen Gym, who addressed the Fox Chase rally, said that she has no problem with the District trying to direct more funds to schools with highly concentrated poverty and setting aside 20 percent of the total for the focus and priority schools.

But the way it's being done means that schools with significant poverty rates are getting scant funds, she said.

"A 57.6 percent poverty rate is an enormously high figure," she said. "I'm afraid that schools in serious poverty are treated like they’re not. The fact is most schools in Philadelphia have 50 percent poverty and above."

She also fears that under the new system for calculating poverty, some families will be overlooked, particularly immigrant families that don't know they are eligible or don't report their need.

But the biggest problem, she said, is that schools in Philadelphia "no longer have any guaranteed level of subsistence funding or resources."

Historically, she said, "Title I functioned as an equalizer for schools in the absence of a responsible funding formula or guaranteed staffing. Now most schools have neither."

 

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.