Fallout from Title I switch

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For the first time, Hubbard High School in West Lawn is looking forward to receiving federal Title I funds. The $291,000 addition to next year’s budget will take the school a long way toward its goal of installing Internet connections in every classroom.

Meanwhile, the local school council at Burnside Academy in Chatham is struggling to cope with a $149,000 loss—half its current federal Title I allotment—and is bracing for a total loss in 1998-99.

Senn High School in Edgewater is in a similar position. Next year’s Title I budget will be the same as this year’s, $792,000, but it, too, stands to lose it all come September 1998.

New formula for Title I distribution

These are among the repercussions of a new formula Chicago has adopted for distributing federal Title I money. Next school year, 430 schools are slated to receive $124 million in Title I. Included are 51 schools that did not qualify this year; 49 are elementary schools, and 2 are high schools. At the same time, 42 schools that received Title I this year do not qualify for any next year; 22 are elementary schools and 20 are high schools. And in between these extremes are scores of reductions and increases.

To soften the blow for schools on the loss list, Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas is tapping $17.4 million in general education funds for “give-backs.” Under this one-year reprieve, high schools will have all their Title I losses covered, and elementary schools scheduled to lose more than $100,000 will have half of those losses covered.

In an Apr. 2 memo to principals, Vallas says the changes to the formula are “timely and will ultimately lead to improvements in how [Title I] dollars are allocated.” But he adds that “such a dramatic shift of funds implemented suddenly would create adverse programmatic impacts in a number of schools that are trying to maintain programs aimed at improving student performance.”

Vallas was said to be especially concerned about high schools, which are launching substantial changes under a Reform Board initiative.

Change prompted by Latino challenges

The new formula adopted by the School Reform Board is the most dramatic change Chicago has made in how it distributes Title I money. (For details, see story below.) For years, Latino leaders challenged the old formula, charging that it shortchanged heavily Latino schools.

“This was a sacred cow,” says Valerie Archibald of the Latino Institute. “You couldn’t even talk about changing the [local] Title I formula. It was heavily guarded.”

A 1995 change at the federal level added fuel to the local fire. Under the federal change, high schools got a windfall—most saw their allotments rise by at least a third—while many elementary schools lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Spry Elementary was one of those hit hard that year; Principal Mary Cavey lost 13 teaching positions at her overcrowded school in South Lawndale. Cavey and principals from a number of predominantly Latino schools decided to appeal. Walter Allen, the board’s director of funded programs, explained to them that it was federal action, not local action, that cost the schools their Title I funds. But the principals felt the change had a disproportionately negative effect on their schools.

In a September 1995 letter to Reform Board President Gery Chico, the principals asked the board to review the local distribution formula and determine whether it shortchanged Latino schools. They argued that their schools lose out because the immigrant status of many Hispanic families disqualifies them for welfare benefits—a key factor in the local formula—even though they’re poor.

Task force proposes solution

In response, the board convened the Title I Eligibility and Allocation Task Force, which met two hours each month for over a year to hash out a solution.

Representatives from central office included Allen, then-Budget Director Christine Hoagland and School Leadership Development Director Lula Ford.

Domingo Trujillo, principal of Whitney Elementary in Little Village, represented the principals’ group. Other groups included were Citywide Title I Parents Advisory Council, University of Illinois at Chicago’s TRIO office, which administers federally funded educational programs for low-income youth, Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Chicago Urban League, Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, Latino Institute, Mexican American Coalition, Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Parents United for Responsible Education.

At the outset, there was a consensus that the old formula, which included the poverty level in a school’s neighborhood, was too complex. A consultant conducted annual studies to produce neighborhood counts of children whose families received Aid to Families with Dependent Children. For high schools, neighborhood counts for their feeder elementary schools had to be combined. However, school principals could not verify the figures. Nor could central office.

Thus, the task force agreed that the formula should look only at the poverty level of the students enrolled in a school. However, members disagreed on how to define poverty, with African Americans tending to favor AFDC counts and Latinos tending to favor free and reduced-price lunch counts. Speaking for the whole group, Bobbie Greene, chairperson of the Citywide Parents Advisory Council says: “We didn’t want 100 percent free lunch. We didn’t want 100 percent AFDC. We just wanted the most bang for our buck.”

The task force looked at how other school districts distribute Title I money—most rely on free-lunch counts, according to a U.S. Department of Education official. The panel also invited a Philadelphia researcher to present his method of determining poverty from free-lunch counts.

In calculating the impact of various formulas, the task force kept school names off the computer runs. “All of the analyses were blind,” says Archibald of the Latino Institute. “They were adamant they wouldn’t put race into it. Anyone who gets the impression that Latinos are going to get a windfall from this is mistaken.”

(A CATALYST analysis shows that as a whole, Hispanic majority schools did only slightly better under the new Title I distribution formula. See chart on page 4.)

Instead, the task force sought to minimize drastic shifts in funding.

In the end, the group agreed to a compromise that gave free-lunch counts greater weight than AFDC—the old formula gave them equal weight. At a Jan. 23 public hearing, “many of us testified that it was not the best formula, but it was the best we could do at this time,” Greene recalls.

Winners and losers

Many schools with Hispanic majorities advanced under the new formula. For example, Amundsen High in Lincoln Square, whose enrollment is 51 percent Hispanic, went from zero to $435,000. Nathan Davis Elementary in Brighton Park, whose enrollment is 91 percent Hispanic, also went from zero to $359,000.

However, several Hispanic-majority schools, including those whose principals pushed for change, are losing money. Saucedo Academy in South Lawndale will get $99,000 less Title I money than it did this year. Like most high schools, Juarez in Pilsen is in line to lose all its Title I money, $667,000, after the end of next school year.

Ironically, Spry Elementary is losing money, too—$123,000 over the next two years—but that’s because it lost 250 students when a successful school-within-school program went independent last fall. However, Principal Cavey takes the loss in stride. “The changes in Title I are following the right direction,” she says. “If Title I funds are truly [targeted] to children of poverty, we need to look at what’s equitable.” Besides, Spry is no longer overcrowded, she says. “We all fit under one roof.”

Some schools that gained Title I funds under the new formula are racially mixed, such as Hubbard High, which works hard to get students who are eligible for free lunch to fill out the forms. And some are predominantly African American. Bennett Elementary in Roseland, which is 99 percent black, is returning to the Title I funding level it was at two years ago—$177,000. So, too, is Caldwell Elementary in Avalon Park, which is 100 percent black; it’s getting $166,000.

How to ease transition

When word started to spread about the impending redistribution of Title I, some schools that stood to lose swung into action. In a single week in February, Gage Park High School LSC Chair Donna Koestner led a group of parents to a meeting of the Local School Council Advisory Board on Monday, a meeting of the Student Alliance on Tuesday and a meeting of the Reform Board on Wednesday. By then, Vallas had already gotten the message.

Principals and local school councils, who decide how to spend Title I, heaved a collective sigh of relief when they learned of the one-year give-back.

“We were elated to get any money back,” says James Foster, chair of the local school council at Beasley Magnet School. “Going to zero was quite a shock.”

At Burnside Academy in Chatham, the give-back will spare several teaching jobs for a year. Instead of losing all $298,000 of its Title I money next year, the school will lose only $149,000. Still, the school must figure out how to pay off the $30,000 balance on its computers, which were purchased on a three-year payment plan. “If we don’t pay it, they’ll come and take them,” says LSC Chair Eric Outten.

Also, Outten wonders where the $17.4 million for the give-back came from, and why schools that need funds for educational programs didn’t get it before. “This is mysterious money from somewhere,” he says. (Money for the give-back program are general education funds that the board is not required to distribute to schools.)

Some problems still remain

Despite the task force’s work, more change is likely. There is still pressure to eliminate AFDC counts entirely, particularly as changes in federal and state welfare laws reduce the number of eligible families.

But there are still concerns about going entirely with free lunch. Public aid applicants must verify their income; free lunch applicants do not. “People don’t believe that people who get free lunch are poor,” says Karen Berman of the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. “You can go in and sign up for free lunch and lie.”

That’s why school officials are soliciting bids to audit lunch program participants. School officials may also contract for a study to determine a better way to measure school poverty.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education is embroiled in its own formula change that could affect Chicago schools. Previously, the department made Title I allocations based on county-level poverty rates calculated by the U.S. Census Bureau every 10 years. However, Congress recently mandated that the Census Bureau update the numbers so Title I allocations would more accurately reflect current poverty levels.

Now a federal review panel is questioning whether the new numbers, based on a combination of food stamp, income tax and other data, are correct. While officials sort that out, next year’s Title I allocations will be based on a combination of the new numbers and the 1990 figures.

However, the education department has a hold harmless policy of its own, stipulating that no district with 30 percent or more poverty, which includes Chicago, will receive less than 95 percent of the amount it got in 1996-97.

‘Shrinking’ funds

In recent years the amount of Title I allocated to Chicago schools has remained relatively flat. That means that schools are losing ground as teacher compensation rises.

Further, the amount of money per school would shrink if the poverty threshold is lowered to include more schools, an option pushed by some.

Taken to its extreme, that approach would mean a distribution pattern like the one used for state Chapter 1, with every school receiving a certain amount of money for every low-income child it enrolls.

“I don’t want to focus on the formula,” Beasley’s Foster argues. “The formula should be, make sure the students who fit the criteria get the money. Give me money to help every student who fits the criteria.”