Education for the ‘us first’ crowd

Now that Election Day has come and gone, my reckoning on the 2016 presidential campaign is underway. Putting aside Donald Trump’s historic upset over Hillary Clinton, the issue I have struggled most with is the divisiveness and anger that was exposed during the campaign. The toxicity of this race had a way of invading everything, like the Blob. It was almost impossible to avoid at times, and the bad juju felt palpable on the streets of Washington. Many times I’ve wondered what happened to the hope so many Americans felt and shared on that cold day in January 2008 when millions lined the streets of Washington to hear and rejoice in the inauguration of the nation’s first black president?

On that day, it truly felt as if we turned a corner in America. I still remember my then 84-year-old father being totally amazed that he had lived to the see Americans coming together to celebrate the inauguration of a black president. Here was a man who celebrated the birth of his fourth daughter only a day before four other little girls were killed in a bomb explosion at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Maybe, just maybe, the issues that divided us for so long were finally beginning to fade.

It is true the last eight years have not been easy. Many Americans continue to suffer economically since the Great Recession of 2007-09. But current national statistics don’t reveal a country in freefall or severe economic distress. To the contrary, economic growth has been consistently strong, the unemployment rate is down, and millions more people have health care. So why are so many people unhappy and angry about life in America?

People of all stripes have attempted to answer this question in recent months. Eric Alterman’s article in The New Yorker, “The Hole in Obama’s Legacy,” was particularly thoughtful. I also found the book Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance both fascinating and uncomfortable. Vance offers the reader a personally informed analysis of white middle-class America and the people who almost assuredly helped elect Donald Trump. Closer to home, my own husband, born and raised in rural Alabama, talked to me about how the pyramid has flipped for so many people in rural and rustbelt America. Where they were once masters of their own fate, these Americans now feel vulnerable and insecure, and at the mercy of powerful elites with more education, money, and mobility.

As I try to make sense of what this election means to my country and my chosen field, education, I am struggling with a pervasive sense of cynicism, not anger.

I don’t fear what a Trump administration will do to education. I don’t think he has a vision for education one way or another. He will pick a few issues, task his political appointees with make some headlines, and then leave the rest for lesser minions who care about education. My concern is more for grand idea of public education and the vision of creating a system that offers opportunities and understanding for all.  Education, once a shared value for individuals and families seeking a better life, no longer feels like a tie that binds us together as a nation. If this election was a referendum on anything, it was that public education is not really about all boats rising . . . it is about your own boat winning.

I am not sure how a fragile public education system stands up against the kind of “us first” anger this election revealed. Like so many things in America, education has the potential to become another self-serving enterprise that pits the wealthy against the poor, the powerful against the meek, and the dark against the light. In the months ahead, the Trump administration will begin to show its cards, and we will see if the rhetoric of the campaign translates into actual policy. The real question: Will education in America become a personal quest for the best possible option, or will it remain a unified effort to provide for the public good? If the aspiration for making America great does not include a high-quality public education for all students, then we really have lost the hope we all felt that on the beautiful day in 2008.



Still trying to get equity right

An important provision of the original ESEA legislation is getting renewed attention under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

For months, three words have been front and center in the discussions about how to regulate the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA): supplement not supplant.

Sounds simple enough, but Republicans and Democrats have been engaged in an ongoing tussle over how the U.S. Department of Education should regulate this almost 50-year-old provision of Title I.

At the heart of the debate over supplement not supplant are USDOE’s proposed regulations for the provision. The first draft of the regulations (issued earlier this year) did not go over well with Senate Republicans, and a negotiated rulemaking process also failed to achieve consensus. On Aug. 31, USDOE issued its kinder, gentler version of the regulations, but, alas, there was still trouble in paradise. Senate Republicans, including HELP Committee chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), expressed disdain for the new rules by referring to them as “illegal” and encouraging school districts to sue the federal government.

To fully understand why negotiations about supplement not supplant have become so complicated, one must first look to the history of Title I itself. President Lyndon Johnson viewed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 as an essential part of his legislative War on Poverty, and the law’s Title I program specifically targeted the most economically disadvantaged students — those adversely affected by both poorly funded school systems and the crippling effects of concentrated poverty.

Several years after ESEA became law, however, some troubling behavior among states was revealed. In some cases, states were using federal funds to supplant state and local funding. Basically, this meant states were substituting federal funds for state and local funding instead of providing all three to disadvantaged districts.

This practice stood in stark contrast to the law’s original intent to level the playing field by providing additional funding to economically disadvantaged school districts. To remedy this situation, Congress added a provision to ESEA in 1970 to ensure that state and local leaders used federal dollars to supplement state and local funding, not take the place of it. Hence the supplement-not-supplant provision was born.

Now USDOE is using ESSA as an opportunity to strengthen the supplement-not-supplant provision. Their main concern is that even with supplement not supplant, about 5,750 Title I schools (their estimate) are receiving “substantially less state and local funding than their non-Title I peers within the same school district,” according to a USDOE fact sheet about the provision.

To address this shortfall, the newly proposed regulations include a “statutory directive around how districts must demonstrate compliance with supplement not supplant,” according to the fact sheet. Citing the law’s requirement that districts use a methodology to allocate state and local funds to each Title I school (to ensure those schools receive all the state and local funding they would get even without additional federal support), USDOE offers districts four ways they can demonstrate compliance:

  1. A weighted student formula that provides additional resources for students with characteristics associated with educational disadvantage (for example, poverty, disabilities);
  2. A formula that allocates resources including staffing positions and nonpersonnel resources directly to schools and that ensures each Title I school gets all of the funding to which it is entitled;
  3. An alternative funds-based test developed by the state and approved by expert peer reviewers; or
  4. A methodology selected by the district that ensures per-pupil funding in each Title I school is at least as much as the average per-pupil funding in non-Title I schools in the district.

This requirement has undone Sen. Alexander and others in Congress. They feel these regulations are yet another case of federal overstep and do not honor ESSA’s original intent to give states more flexibility in how they use Title I funds. Keep in mind that district leaders used to be required to do far less to comply with the supplement-not-supplant provision. Basically, district leaders had to detail how they were using Title I funds to support the kind of educational extras that wealthier school districts could afford without the help of the federal government.

In a strange twist of politics, the American Federation of Teachers has joined Alexander in his criticism of USDOE expectations regarding supplement not supplant. Although most people would consider Senate Republicans and the AFT as more “frenemies” than allies, the two groups actually worked closely together on ESSA, and in this instance they stand united as well. For AFT, the concern is that USDOE’s proposed regulations could force schools to make staffing decisions in order to comply. AFT said in a press release that schools should “have the latitude to make staffing decisions based on their own needs.”

The debate of supplement not supplant echoes a familiar theme in American education: How committed are we as a nation to the public in public education? When President Johnson began pushing for ESEA (the Johnson administration, not Congress, wrote the legislative bill for ESEA), he did so to foment the notion that the federal government should play a key role in ensuring that all children have access to an equitable education. At that time in American history — the height of the Civil Rights Movement — a commitment to equity for all students was not widely shared. The question today is whether that level of commitment has changed much in the 50 years since ESEA’s initial passage.

There are many ways to approach that complex and uncomfortable question. If you wanted to answer that question visually, National Public Radio’s School Money project developed a visual mapping tool that shows spending dollars for education per student, by district for the entire country.

The brightly colored map belies the stark differences in education funding in America. Although the national average is just under $12,000 per student, the variations that make up that average are sobering. Relying solely on local business and property taxes pits those communities with a weaker tax base against economic powerhouses that can afford to fund schools at much higher levels.

You can also factor in what Stanford University researcher Sean Reardon calls the “income gap.” Putting aside the actual funding dollars that support public schools, there are also increasingly large gaps in family income levels. Reardon’s work quantifies the educational effect of income gaps between wealthy and poor communities. Not surprisingly, students from wealthier communities have access to a wide range of supports and resources that most poor students can’t afford. A classic example is SAT prep classes. A 10-week SAT prep course in my area costs north of $1,000, with private tutoring available for an additional cost. A local community college offers residents a six-week class (on a first come, first served basis) for $355. Despite the College Board’s very laudable efforts to make high-quality test prep free and accessible to all students, wealthier students will always have the upper hand when it comes to extra academic help, not just to sports, music, and artistic activities.

At the very heart of the provision to supplement not supplant, is a desire to mitigate these and other gaps in school funding. However Education Secretary John King was correct when he said, “no single measure will erase generations of resource inequities . . . ” Supplementing a highly inequitable system with a relatively small amount of federal funding is one small step in a much longer journey. Even with supplemental funds, schools within communities of concentrated poverty remain highly disadvantaged. Fifty years after President Johnson fired the first salvo in his War on Poverty, the fight continues.


Citation: Ferguson, M. (2016). Education for the ‘us first’ crowd. Phi Delta Kappan 98 (3), 74-75.

MARIA FERGUSON ( is executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

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