Thursday, Jan.3, 2008 | Children chatter over their breakfast trays at Linda Vista Elementary, where 96 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for free meals. Outside, parent Ted Burns gazes at the pastel building and worries, leaning hard on his cane. If the school district doesn’t change the way it divvies up federal Title 1 funds for low-income kids, Linda Vista stands to lose $81,000 next year — a 17 percent cut in the funds.

Budget cuts have already cost Linda Vista its librarian, leaving its new library unstaffed. Its new principal inherited a budget deficit of more than $62,000. As Burns drops off his two children, he sometimes hears other kids mouthing gang monikers.

Robin Hood, or Robbing Peter to Pay Paul?

  • The Issue: With cuts looming, San Diego Unified is mulling whether to reshuffle federal Title 1 funding to help the poorest schools, at the expense of the slightly better-off.
  • What It Means: The change could benefit dozens of poor, low-achieving schools, advocates argue. Even schools that lose federal funding could benefit, by no longer having to meet No Child Left Behind standards. But the plan could still be a tough sell for schools that stand to lose.
  • The Bigger Picture: School officials expect Title 1 funding to drop next year. Meanwhile, more low-income students are expected to enroll in San Diego schools, putting the squeeze on the federal funds.

An alternate plan would give Linda Vista and other high-poverty schools a boost in Title 1 funds — but completely cut off funds to schools with a smaller percentage of low-income students. To Burns it’s a sensible trade-off, to spare the poorest schools from cuts.

“We’ve already lost teachers. Who do we let go now?” Burns asked rhetorically. “At least don’t cut our (Title 1) funding. Just keep it the same. I wouldn’t be happy — but we could live with it.”

As low-income people flee California, fed up with its sky-high rents, federal dollars earmarked for California’s disadvantaged students are likely to decline. Preparing to feel the pinch, some school staffers have floated a Robin Hood solution, pulling Title 1 funds from less-impoverished schools to fill the poorest schools’ coffers.

And this year, unlike years past, San Diego Unified has asked a parent committee to advise them on how to divvy the funds.

Currently, San Diego Unified doles out Title 1 money through a three-tiered system. Schools with 40 to 59 percent low-income kids receive $166 per student, schools with 60 to 84 percent get $316 and schools with 75 percent or more get $546. The low end of the spectrum is dominated by high-scoring schools such as Pacific Beach, Chesterton and Ericson Elementary, each receiving a Title 1 sum too small to hire a teacher.

“There’s not a lot that can be done with $20,000 to affect education,” said David Page, chairperson of San Diego Unified’s District Advisory Council for Compensatory Education, pointing to the sum received by high-scoring Marvin Elementary last year.

If that system is left untouched, all schools will lose 17 percent of their Title 1 funds next year.

Another plan would focus more funding on the poorest schools, and on younger students. Elementary schools would get funds based on slightly different tiers, peaking at schools with 85 percent poverty or more. San Diego Unified would stop giving Title 1 funds to middle schools with less than 60 percent poverty, or to high schools with less than 75 percent poverty.

Under that plan, 16 high schools and five middle schools would likely lose Title 1 funds, but 95 elementaries, 14 middle schools and 16 high schools would gain money.

Shuffling funds to help the poorest schools appeals to vocal parents such as Diane Haney, president of the local Title 1 Parents Association. But the scheme could be a tougher sell for other parents at more mixed-income schools. At a recent committee meeting, a straw poll found that only half of parents support the new plan.

“Nobody wants to receive less,” Deputy Superintendent Geno Flores said.

Trade-Off Between Federal Money and No Child Left Behind Penalties

Yet some schools could gain from losing Title 1. No Child Left Behind, a sweeping national law that penalizes low-performing schools, only applies to Title 1 schools. All types of students in the school, including kids with disabilities and those learning English, need to improve significantly or a school can be tagged for “Program Improvement,” a dreaded label that means letters are sent home to parents, inviting them to bus their kids elsewhere if they wish.

Schools such as Dana Middle School could escape the Program Improvement label by forgoing funds. Dana, a high-scoring school where English-learners have lagged behind, was first slapped with the label three years ago. The school is 54 percent low-income, and received roughly $66,000 in Title 1 funds this year.

Page, who favors shifting funds to poorer schools, thinks the money isn’t worth it for schools such as Dana. Elsewhere in the nation, some schools agree: Roughly two dozen schools in Oregon shunned Title 1 funds to dodge No Child Left Behind, according to an analysis by the Oregonian. No San Diego Unified schools have done the same.

How to spend the federal funds is a perennial question, raised and reconsidered every year. But parents such as Page and Haney say they’ve never seen San Diego Unified take its current tack, of asking the District Advisory Committee on Compensatory Education first. The committee consists of parent representatives from each school that gets Title 1 funds.

“You came to listen,” Page said at a recent school board meeting, applauding the district’s approach. “You didn’t come with a dog and pony show to tell us what you’re going to do.”

Countywide, school districts use very different methods to split up Title 1 funding. Oceanside Unified divides Title 1 using a five-tiered system similar to San Diego Unified’s plan, according to associate superintendent Robyn Phillips. Unlike San Diego, however, Oceanside focuses more funds on younger children, devoting less money to middle and high schools.

In contrast, Chula Vista Elementary school district uses the simplest possible formula: Divide the Title 1 funds by the number of eligible students. Each school gets the same number of dollars per low-income student, and spends it directly on those students.

Under federal law, schools with more than 40 percent poverty can choose between “school-wide” or “targeted” spending. Targeted spending, used in some Chula Vista elementary schools, means Title 1 dollars must flow to low-income students — and low-income students only. Santee Elementary school district targets funds as well, paying for literacy coaches who attend to low-income kids.

School-wide funds, however, can be spent on school extras that help any student, such as hiring a counselor or bringing in tutors available to all students. In San Diego Unified, all Title 1 schools use school-wide spending — an approach first adopted under previous superintendent Alan Bersin. It allows schools greater flexibility in spending Title 1 funds, and prevents schools from obliquely identifying low-income kids by pulling them aside for special tutoring or other services.

“There were days when you bought headphones and only the Title 1 students could use them,” Flores said. “It becomes an accounting nightmare. Others argue, no — that’s exactly what the money is for.”

Dollars Routinely Misspent Filling Funding Gaps

Haney is a vocal critic of school-wide spending. As a parent at Madison High School, she witnessed a principal spending Title 1 funds on items she considered inappropriate, including a camcorder, photocopying, and re-keying classrooms.

In May 2006, an internal school district audit concluded that then-principal Virginia Eves spent nearly $30,000 in Title 1 money without the approval of the School Site Council, which is required, and used roughly $1,400 in Title 1 funds inappropriately.

“It’s a slush fund,” Haney said. “People think, ‘If we don’t have it in our regular budget, let’s get it from Title 1.’” School-wide funding abets that misspending, Haney argued. “The whole purpose of Title 1 is to help the disadvantaged kids. When it’s spent schoolwide, it’s not focused on those kids. It spreads to the entire school. Why do you think we have this big achievement gap?”

Misspending at Madison “isn’t some strange thing,” Page said. “It happens all over the place.”

Nationwide, education experts complain that federal Title 1 money is misused to plug holes in state and local funding, instead of giving the poorest students an additional boost. Education Trust, a nonprofit that aims to close the achievement gap, wants to amend No Child Left Behind, forcing schools to prove that non-federal funds are spent equitably across schools — including teacher salaries.

Title 1 “is meant to cover the additional cost of educating disadvantaged students,” said Daria Hall, Education Trust’s assistant director for K-12 education. “But what we see all too often … There’s a very inequitable foundation, and federal funds are laid on top. The result is that Title 1 isn’t having the impact we need it to have.”

Because experienced teachers have more choice about where to teach, poorer schools tend to attract less experienced, lower-credentialed teachers than wealthier schools, Education Trust reported. As a result, school districts spend more money in teacher salaries at wealthier schools — an unaddressed funding gap, the group argues.

San Diego Unified spent an average of $3,000 less per teacher in low-income schools than their wealthier counterparts, according to Education Trust’s analysis. At Wilson Middle School, each teacher earned an average of $9,240 less than teachers at higher-performing Muirlands Middle School. If Wilson’s teachers earned as much as Muirland’s, the school would get more than $700,000 more in teacher salaries.

Grappling with those gaps, low-income schools are eyeing San Diego’s Title 1 dollars closely — and parents are wary of how the specialized funds are spent.

“These kids are bringing [Title 1] funds to the school,” Haney said, “but are they getting what they need?”

Correction: The original version of this story misstated what proportion of Chula Vista schools use targeted spending of Title 1 funds. We regret the error.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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