MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
It's not every day that a U.S. senator tells states to consider suing the Department of Education. But Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander has done just that. And things could get more heated today at a hearing he's called. Cory Turner of the NPR Ed team explains.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: This face-off between Alexander and the Education Department is about Title I. That's the $15 billion dollars the federal government sends to districts to help schools that serve lots of low-income students.
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LAMAR ALEXANDER: This is an intolerable situation.
TURNER: That's Alexander talking last week in the Senate. Why is he so mad? - well, because he and the department disagree on how to enforce the new law governing Title I. It says to get federal money, districts have to prove a few things, among them, that they're spending state and local dollars fairly, providing roughly the same services to kids in poor and nonpoor schools alike.
LIZ KING: Basically, schools within a school district have to be similar.
TURNER: Liz King works for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
L. KING: The idea here is that if they're not similar then these federal dollars are just going to fill in gaps.
TURNER: Everyone agrees that Title I money is meant to be extra for low-income kids who need it most. What the sides don't agree on is how you prove they're not just filling gaps and that state and local resources are being spread fairly. Right now, the system's not fair, says Education Secretary John B. King Jr.
JOHN B. KING JR: What we see as we look around the country is districts where they're actually spending significantly more in their non-Title I schools than they're spending in their Title I schools.
TURNER: Nora Gordon of Georgetown University says much of that spending gap comes from teacher salaries.
NORA GORDON: High-poverty schools typically have more teacher turnover. That means they have more novice teachers.
TURNER: And novice teachers cost less. That matters because, believe it or not, most school budgets are based on staff positions, not actual salaries. To comply with the law, districts just have to show that all schools are getting their fair share of jobs, not dollars. Now the Ed. Department wants districts to prove that they're actual spending per student in poorer schools is equal to or greater than the average spent in nonpoor schools.
Senator Alexander says if Congress had intended to make that change, it would have. According to him, the law says...
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ALEXANDER: That you've got to be spending a comparable amount of money in schools that get the money and schools that don't, except teacher salaries may not be included in that computation. That is in the law, Mr. President.
TURNER: The Ed. Department's plan also worries Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
RANDI WEINGARTEN: We don't want to hurt one school to help another school. We have to help all schools.
TURNER: Weingarten says unless districts and states find new money for their poorer schools, their less poor schools will have to cut. And that could mean losing programs or even transferring some of their more experienced and expensive teachers.
WEINGARTEN: And if you know other kids are going to get hurt by this, why would you do it?
TURNER: In this way, the Title I fight pits pragmatism against principle. On one side are Weingarten and many of the nation's school leaders who say this attempt to level the playing field is well-intentioned but would come at too high a cost to other kids and schools. On the other side are the Ed. Department and advocates, including Liz King, who argue this is about protecting students' civil rights.
L. KING: When is it ever OK to spend less money on the education of poor children than we spend on the education of nonpoor children?
TURNER: It's a simple question, yet the answer is anything but. Corey Turner, NPR News, Washington.
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