Funding Stagnant for No Child Left Behind Program

Under the No Child Left Behind law states are supposed to reserve part of the federal money they receive for improving failing schools. But federal funding has been stagnant, so states have not had enough funds to set aside. As a result, the purpose of the law is being undermined.

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In the world of education, few things are certain except for budget uncertainties. This school year, many districts face a new source of financial anxiety: Federal funding for programs aimed at the poorest students is flat this year. And that will make it even harder for schools to meet the demands of a federal program known as No Child Left Behind.

NPR's Larry Abramson explains.

LARRY ABRAMSON: States will receive nearly $13 billion this year in what's called Title I funding specifically to help educate poor children. That's a lot of federal money, but in fact Title I funding this year is the same as it was last year. After accounting for inflation, many school districts are really taking it on the chin.

Ms. PHYLLIS PORTER (Coordinator, Title I Funding, Leon County, Florida): And we have received 600,000 fewer dollars than from the former year.

ABRAMSON: Phyllis Porter manages Title I money for Leon County, which serves about 33,000 kids in and around Tallahassee, Florida. She says the stagnant federal funding means she's had to cut programs that have a direct impact on the achievement of poor children.

Ms. PORTER: We've had to gear down our extended-day programs. Sometimes it takes children in Title I schools or the most in need schools need more services, maybe Saturday programs.

ABRAMSON: This shortfall in federal funding comes as expectations on the nation's schools are rising. No Child Left Behind says all schools must be on a path to improvement or else they face possible sanctions. Back when it was passed in 2002, No Child Left Behind came with a boost in funds for poor kids. A chunk of that money had to be set aside to help improve failing schools. But now that federal funding has leveled off, states like Florida won't be able to set aside any extra money to meet those goals.

Jack Jennings of the Center on Education Policy, a non-partisan think-tank, says the situation is forcing schools into a corner.

Mr. JACK JENNINGS (President, Center on Education Policy): So, with flat funding, it means that school districts just don't have the money to do it, and they have to take money from other purposes in order to try to meet the demands of No Child Left Behind.

ABRAMSON: Jennings has just released a report on the problem. He says the complex formula used to calculate how much each district gets has led to wild swings in funding, so California is contending with the 5 percent drop in Title I funding. In Florida, the total drop is more like 9 percent. Some urban districts, including high-poverty areas like New York City, Houston and Atlanta, are taking the heaviest cuts. Jack Jennings says it's hard to make steady progress when the budget bulges and shrinks like that.

Mr. JENNINGS: We want to have systems that work over time so that states and school districts know they can count on a certain amount of money to bring about improvement.

ABRAMSON: Congress recognized this problem and gave schools some extra money this year for academic improvement, but Jennings says lawmakers didn't provide enough. And there's no guarantee that bonus will return next year.

Some budget wonks say this whole issue points to an important change in the way states budget for education. Michael Griffith with the Education Commission of the States says No Child Left Behind drives everything.

Mr. MICHAEL GRIFFITH (Analyst, Education Commission of the States): In the last several years when states have gotten new money, what they're doing with it, first off, is saying how can this help us achieve both our state's standards and the standards set forth in No Child Left Behind?

ABRAMSON: Griffith says that's good because it means states have a goal. They know they have to improve achievement, particularly for poor kids, or they'll get a slap from the feds. But it means when funding falls short, the kids who need the most help lose the most.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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