Title I Is Supposed to Fund Our Poorest Schools

Somehow $2.6 billion of it still ends up in the hands of wealthier-than-average districts.

The empty classroom.
Title I funding doesn’t always get to the students it was designed to help.


On Wednesday, U.S. News & World Report released a comprehensive analysis showing that Title I, the federal program created as part of civil rights–era legislation to meet the needs of low-income students, is still flawed. A significant portion of the $14.5 billion spent via Title I each year is funneled to students in wealthier districts: Nearly 20 percent, or $2.6 billion, goes to wealthier-than-average districts, while many districts with high concentrations of poverty are shortchanged.

The mission of Title I, created in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “war on poverty,” was to provide federal funding to help meet the educational needs of low-income students. It’s been reauthorized regularly since then, and it’s a key part of the most recent federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, signed into law in December by President Barack Obama to replace 2001’s No Child Left Behind Act. The funding is meant to provide supplemental resources for low-income, struggling students, such as instructional coaches, reading and math intervention programs, professional development, and additional guidance counselors. But it is notoriously difficult to correctly allocate these funds—how do you know how to fairly disburse money so it benefits just the poor students in more than 13,000 school districts?

Over the years, Title I has been modified in attempts to address misuse. One of the most significant amendments, passed in 1970, requires districts to use Title I funds to supplement, not supplant, state and local funding. In other words, it prohibits local districts from intentionally underfunding schools serving poor students because they assume they can backfill the shortfall using federal money. A more recent modification helped curb blatant misuses of funds, such as using it to build two Olympic-sized swimming pools in Claiborne Parish, Louisiana, which at the time had a child poverty rate of 36 percent.

Despite the overall intent that Title I funding help poor students, it doesn’t always work out that way in practice. That’s because of the inherent difficulty in pinpointing exactly which schools should get funding and how much. If a school in a wealthy district enrolls students who live below the poverty line, should it still get a piece of the cake, and if so, how much? Is it the number of poor students that matters or the percentage of students who are poor? (The current formulas take both into account, although more weight is given to the number of poor students.) Title I also incentivizes states to provide higher levels of financial support by offering additional funds when they do.

There are other considerations, too; for example, there’s the fact that states with small populations, which are presumed to be rural, receive additional funding. While this makes sense for a state such as New Mexico, it also means that states such as Delaware, whose small population is due to its small size, not its ruralness, also receive this Title I bump—in fact, they end up receiving more Title I funds per student than other states with higher rates of child poverty.

Another quirk of the law: In schools where at least 40 percent of students come from low-income families, Title I funds can be used on schoolwide programs that benefit all of the students.

The net result is that the distribution of funds is uneven and often counterintuitive. So U.S. News & World Report has built a tool that easily allows anyone to sort districts to see how much Title I funding they receive (it also shows state and local funding, as well as poverty levels).

Using this, readers can see that the impoverished district of Nottoway County, Virginia, receives about $775,000 a year in Title I funds, while significantly wealthier Fairfax County, Virginia, receives $20 million. To be fair, Nottoway has a much smaller population than Fairfax, but even with a 30 percent child poverty rate, Nottoway actually receives less money per poor child than Fairfax (which has just an 8 percent child poverty rate).

The issues with Title I have been well-known, and there have been several recent proposals to adjust how funding is allocated. But even with all the good in the new federal education act (it’s a huge step up from No Child Left Behind), the act did not change how Title I funds are allocated. And that means that after 50 years, Title I still isn’t closing the education inequality gap the way it was meant to.