New Federal Rules For Distributing School Money: An 'Unfunded Mandate'? : NPR Ed New "supplement not supplant" rules, meant to balance spending between rich and poor schools, have critics gnashing their teeth.
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New Federal Rules For Distributing School Money: An 'Unfunded Mandate'?

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New Federal Rules For Distributing School Money: An 'Unfunded Mandate'?

New Federal Rules For Distributing School Money: An 'Unfunded Mandate'?

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The U.S. Department of Education proposed new rules this week with one goal in mind - to make sure that districts spend their money more evenly between affluent schools and high-poverty schools. Cory Turner of the NPR Ed team explains how the rules would work and the debate that they've reopened.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Education Secretary John B. King, Jr., wants to be clear. Many districts, he says, don't spend their money evenly.

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JOHN B KING JR: We see that there are schools serving high-need students where the entire student population is in poverty. And they're actually spending 25 to 30 percent less than a school 10 blocks away that serves largely affluent students.

TURNER: King spoke with NPR's Michel Martin in an interview to air this weekend. So why is spending so uneven? One big reason is teacher pay. High-poverty schools generally have a harder time attracting more experienced and more expensive teachers. Those schools King mentioned - well, they may have the same number of staff jobs, but the teachers in more affluent schools can end up costing their districts a lot more money.

The ed. department isn't proposing an end to all of this. It's saying, more broadly, the districts have to find a better balance. If they want to spend more money on teachers in school A, fine, but they've got to make up that difference somehow in school B. King admits that's still a hard message for some to hear.

KING JR: But I don't think it's acceptable for local leaders to say, because it's hard, we can't honor students' civil rights.

TURNER: And here's where things get complicated.

CHRIS MINNICH: There are ways we can get more resources to low-income kids, and this isn't it.

TURNER: Chris Minnich is executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. He agrees with the intent here, but not the fine print. If districts are forced to spread their money more evenly, they'll have two options - find new money or move around old money by cutting programs at more affluent schools or perhaps, he says, transferring some of those more expensive teachers.

MINNICH: Regardless of the quality of their instruction, really - only based on how much they cost. It's not something that we're interested in doing in states or districts.

TURNER: Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, is quick to point out that there is language in the proposal to protect against this. The union leader agrees with some of what the ed. department is trying to do, especially the part about leveling the playing field for low-income kids.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: At the same time, we need to make sure that you don't destabilize that which works.

TURNER: Weingarten argues districts shouldn't have to take money, programs or teachers away from one school and give them to another. The focus, she says, shouldn't be on reshuffling all that old money, but on pushing states and districts to find new money. She knows that since the recession, new money for education has been really hard to come by in much of the country. Still, Weingarten says...

WEINGARTEN: People will raise taxes if they know that they're not buying a pig in a poke, if they know that funding is for things that work and are relevant and are viable.

TURNER: Things like high-quality preschool, guidance counselors and wraparound services for vulnerable students. And so this is that kind of fight when all sides say they want the same thing - a fair system that doesn't further disadvantage the disadvantaged. It's how to build that system that bedevils them. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington.

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