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The Challenges of Title I: The Early Years

Several factors augured ill for the success of ESEA's Title I in improving the performance of poor students despite its enduring success politically over the decades. First, the alleviation of poverty was not a strong policy priority for the average American citizen or school superintendent. Also, there was little knowledge at the federal level or within the state and local levels about how to improve the academic achievement of these children. Congress spent the bulk of its attention debating how Title I money would be allocated, not how educators could improve poor children's education.

But Congress also did not devote much money to it. The Great Society programs were many in number and light on budgets. Johnson's War on Poverty was a big idea, but most of its programs were in the Office of Economic Opportunity, whose advocates fought hard to keep these programs experimental and small at first. HEW persuaded the President to locate ESEA in the Office of Education, but Congress did not give the resources needed to do the job. Advocates' hopes that budget appropriations would increase after the first year were confounded by the expansion of the Vietnam War.

Congress not only appropriated too little money but spread it across too many districts. Initially the entitlement was calculated by the number of students from families below $2000 in family income or receiving state welfare. The latter was a concession to big states like New York, whose welfare payments exceeded $2000. However, when those numbers were tallied, that figure was multiplied by a factor reflecting the existing per-pupil costs on average in the individual state, an inducement to get the support of richer states that spent higher amounts per child on education. Meanwhile, the initial definitions of poverty income levels were increased in order to make more attendance areas eligible. Soon, almost half the school districts in the country had some Title I schools. Liberal Democrats in future years would react to this by introducing “concentration grants,” which allocated extra funds to the districts with the highest proportion of poverty families. Still, the redistributive effect of Title I was modest.

Title I also foundered because many districts felt little commitment to the stated purpose—to improve the education of children in poverty. They simply violated the law and used the funds for many nonapproved purposes. Scandals emerged within a year. Ruby Martin, former OCR director, and Phyllis McClure, of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, documented districts in which Title I funds were used to pay teachers and buy supplies that had nothing to do with Title I programs. Title I funds paid for disposal of sewage, renting an administration building, purchasing a heating system, buying buses for regular school runs, and constructing an instructional television studio for all students (Martin and McClure 1969, 6, 9–11, 13, 14, 21,29). [1]

Gradually, the government brought such blatant violations of rules under control, but more subtle problems existed. Some schools used the funds only to bring the expenditures for poor children up on average from the existing unequal levels to those of more affluent children within a district. Federal officials found this “comparability” problem difficult to define and monitor. Other schools used Title I funds to replace local or state funds even though federal officials emphasized that Title I funds must “supplement” local amounts spent on these children, not “supplant” those local funds. Another knotty problem has been documented by economists:

Adding funds in a given year may seem like an advantage to the Title I programs, but those gains were often offset by subsequent reductions in local taxes for education (Gordon 2004; Cascio, Gordon, and Reber 2013).

It was virtually impossible for the federal government to ascertain whether the funds were reaching the stated goal, which was not just to spend the money on poor children but reduce achievement gaps between rich and poor. Few states had regular statewide achievement tests, and there was an intense phobia against developing federal tests. People widely believed that federal tests would drive curriculum, which was the prerogative of localities and the states. Senator Robert Kennedy insisted upon an accountability clause in Title I because he believed that schools had no idea how to accomplish its goals. However, that clause only required districts to devise whatever tests they wished to use and report them annually to the state, a provision that was inadequate on the face of it and was, in any case, widely ignored. [2] As we shall see, important reforms were made in education legislation, and in Title I in particular, in the 1970s and 1980s.

  • [1] Thanks to David K. Cohen and Susan L. Moffitt for providing me with a copy of this report.
  • [2] On the debates and passage of ESEA, see Sundquist (1968) and Eidenberg and Morey (1969). For critical perspectives on its weaknesses, see Jeffrey (1978), and especially Cohen and Moffitt (2009), which emphasizes the paucity of educational resources at all levels and the loose policy levers in the federal system of educational governance.
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