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State and Local Funding Flexibility Act: Shrewd Shuffling or a Shell Game?

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SHUFFLE
AP

The controversial “State and Local Funding Flexibility Act” passed through the House Education and Workforce Committee Wednesday.

The bill, part of the ongoing bipartisan efforts to reauthorize the Johnson era Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), would allow states and districts to transfer federal funding originally intended as Title I grants for underprivileged children to use for other programs and activities.

"Time and time again, school officials have talked about the innovative reforms they would undertake if only they had the flexibility to target federal funds according to their priorities," Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the committee and the bill's sponsor, told Education Week.

The Obama administration first laid out its blueprint for ESEA reauthorization on March 13, 2010-- emphasizing the importance of preparing students for college and a career, moving away from the Bush era “No Child Left Behind” policies. But like many of the administration's efforts, the reforms have been met with fierce partisan debate.

The Flexibility Act, HR 2445, boasts almost solely Republican support, and has been slammed by vocal critics on the left and in the education sector.

In a statement last week, Dennis Van Roekel, President of the National Education Association says:

“All flexibility is not good flexibility. Let’s not abandon the students who need us the most. Greatly flawed, this measure perpetrates the legacy of inadequacy and inequity in funding for special populations which has plagued our public schools for far too long.

The future of nearly 29 million students is at stake. If we’re going to get it right this time, a reauthorized ESEA must grant more decision-making power at the local level. But such empowerment must still uphold the federal government's responsibility to guarantee equal educational opportunity for all. Loosened reins can’t be allowed to narrow protections for the very students the federal government got involved in education to serve.”

The Title I designation was brought in as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's “War on Poverty” in 1965. Under the current definition, all schools with 40 percent or more of their students coming from low-income households are entitled to those funds. Title I grants are of critical importance to many English as a Second Language programs and Native American students among others.

Republican supporters, such as Rep. Larry Buschon (R-Ind.) argue that the bill's opponents “need to put trust in [their] local schools” and that insinuations that educators and administrators might use this opportunity to siphon money away from the students who need it, are “short-sighted and somewhat insulting.”

One of the loudest opposition voices in congress has come from Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.). Education Week reports his concerns that the money might go toward the student's whose parents can exert the most pressure on school administration:

"Where do you think that money will go?" he asked. "If you leave it to the market, the privileged will get more. We have serious divisions in our society, we have serious inequalities in our society, it is incumbent on us to do everything we can to address those.”

In an interview with NPR, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan expressed his distaste for the bill and concerns over its implications, but the National School Board Association has come out in support of the measure.

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