School funding ‘flex’ vexes lawmakers

Under the proposal, school districts would need to notify state officials how they plan to use federal funds, but they wouldn't need approval.

As Congress weighs several bills designed to overhaul the No Child Left Behind Act, lawmakers are at odds over a proposal to revamp how federal education dollars are spent—including money intended to help underprivileged students.

The State and Local Funding Flexibility Act (H.R. 2445), introduced by House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., and supported by Republicans, would give states and school districts the authority to spend federal dollars intended for certain programs on a wide range of other activities authorized under NCLB.

Critics of the bill, including many Democrats, worry the proposal could hurt low-income and minority students, because it means federal Title I money could be diverted for uses that don’t target these populations of students it is intended for.

The debate has important implications for how much money schools have available for programs such as educational technology or after-school services—and it’s also representative of the larger divide between the two parties in Congress, as they clash over the appropriate role of the federal government in setting policy and ensuring fairness for all members of society.

“Superintendents and principals from across the nation repeatedly tell me they need more freedom to decide how federal education dollars should be used to support students,” said Kline in a statement. “Washington bureaucrats cannot dictate how money is best spent in the classroom—those decisions should be left to the teachers, school administrators, superintendents, principals, and state leaders who have an integral knowledge of the needs of our kids.”

He continued: “The State and Local Funding Flexibility Act will help get the federal government out of the way of student achievement and encourage more innovative education reforms on the local level.”

Kline’s bill takes inspiration from the Rural Education Achievement Program, which is currently authorized under Title VI of NCLB and is called the REAP Flex. The program, widely used by rural school districts, directs federal resources to meet the needs of students.

According to Kline, the bill will build upon the success of this program by applying it to all states and school districts and expanding the program to include NCLB formula funds (except the Impact Aid program) and the EduJobs Fund, allowing states and districts to use those funds on state and local activities authorized under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

States could use funds from:

  • School Improvement Grants (state administration)
  • Aid for the Disadvantaged (state administration)
  • Migrant Education
  • Neglected and Delinquent Programs
  • Teacher Quality State Grants
  • English Language Acquisition Grants
  • 21st Century Community Learning Centers
  • Education Jobs Fund

School districts could use funds from:

  • Aid for the Disadvantaged
  • Migrant Education
  • Neglected and Delinquent Programs
  • Teacher Quality State Grants
  • English Language Acquisition Grants
  • Indian Education
  • Education Jobs Fund

Activities for which the funds could be used include:

  • School Improvement Grants
  • Aid for the Disadvantaged (state administration)—states only
  • Aid for the Disadvantaged—school districts only
  • Reading First
  • Migrant Education
  • Neglected and Delinquent Programs
  • Teacher Quality Grants
  • Math and Science Partnerships
  • English Language Acquisition Grants
  • 21st Century Community Learning Centers
  • Innovative Programs
  • Grants for State Assessments—states only
  • Rural and Low-Income School Program
  • Indian Education
  • Early Intervening Services under Section 613(f) of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—school districts only

The bill, citing an example, notes that if a state or district receiving formula funds under the Teacher Quality State Grant program wanted to use those funds to purchase new computers or create a new literacy program for English Language Learners, the state or district could do so “unencumbered by federal requirements dictating how federal funds are to be spent.”

“This approach to federal policy, based on trust and confidence in teachers, principals, superintendents, and school boards, will result in smarter investment of dollars aimed at helping low-income and minority students reach new educational heights,” said one of the bill’s supporters, the American Association of School Administrators (AASA). “This change in policy will come with a change in culture, as policy makers and education leaders transition from a nine-year history of lack of trust and confidence to a climate of trust and support.”

Not so fast, others say

Though it might seem like a win for states and schools to use funding as they see fit, critics of the bill, mainly Democrats, say not everyone will be a winner—specifically because the bill would siphon away money intended for poor and minority students.

“This back-door attempt at fulfilling campaign promises to dismantle the federal role in education will turn back the clock on civil rights and especially harm low-income and minority students,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee. “Pretending like the federal government doesn’t have a role won’t change why it exists, it won’t change the history of separate but equal, but it will endanger our schools, our economic stability, and our global competitiveness. The implications of a bill like this are disastrous for students, communities, schools, and the future of this country.”

“The Kline bill is troubling,” said Amy Wilkins, vice president for government affairs and communication at the Education Trust. “For example, a district could spend its Title I dollars on things that have nothing to do with core academics, like CPR training. That’s not the kind of flexibility our schools need to boost student achievement and close gaps.”

Another opponent to the bill is Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who reportedly believes the bill could deprive students with the greatest needs of the support they need to succeed.

Supporters of the bill argue that it contains regulations designed to guard against this possibility.

The State and Local Funding Flexibility Act will “maintain monitoring, reporting, and accountability requirements for states and school districts under existing ESEA programs. This ensures [that] states and school districts continue to focus on improving the academic achievement of special populations of students, including disadvantaged students, migrant students, at-risk students, and ELLs,” the bill reads.

The legislation also includes a “reasonable annual notification requirement, similar to what is currently included in REAP Flex.”

“The carryover of all program reporting requirements is a prudent check on the proposed expansion of flexibility,” said AASA, “providing a transparent mechanism for giving local educators the flexibility they need while allowing for state and federal oversight of expenditures and activities.”

Under the proposal, school districts would tell state officials how they plan to use their funds, and state officials would notify the Secretary of Education how they plan to use their own funding.

However, the bill does not require an application or approval process to take advantage of the flexibility.

Is it necessary?

Democrats argue there are several provisions in the current education law to promote flexibility, yet few states or districts choose to use the options available.

To highlight some of these provisions, the Democrats on the House Education and Workforce Committee released a report, titled “Real Relief for Schools: Accomplishing Effective Flexibility.”

The report outlines policy requests and priorities for flexibility from education stakeholders and also includes the Democrats’ visions and recommendations for building greater flexibility into ESEA.

The controversial bill was considered in committee and has been recommended to be considered by the House as a whole.

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