Here we go again. We have another “meddler” running the US Department of Education.
The successor to “Arne the Meddler” is US Secretary of Education John King, who I’m guessing is being referred to something along the lines of King Meddler II or Fed Meddler 2.0 in many Republican, teachers’ union, and “local control” circles, with US Sen. Lamar Alexander, who chairs the Senate education committee, as the most apoplectic anti-meddler.
You may have read about it as the Capitol Hill battle over “ESSA Title I funding,” “supplement, not supplant,” or “specific methodology.” And then you may have looked for something else to read that didn’t make your eyes gloss over and your head hurt.
But in simpler terms, it’s a battle over, essentially, math and the honor system—whether local school districts should have to “show their work” when they calculate which schools get how much money or whether we kneel at the altar of “local control” and put our faith (and the well-being of kids) in the honor system.
Here’s an oversimplification (for the sake of your eyes and head) of the issue:
Let’s say we have a school district of two schools: one school has mostly kids from affluent households (let’s call it Lamar Alexander Academy, home of the “Local Lions”), and the other school has mostly kids from low-income households (we’ll call this one John King Prep, home of the “Equity Eagles”).
Everyone at least pays lip service to the principle that King Prep has bigger needs and should get more money than Alexander Academy.
And, in fact, there’s a federal law (the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA) written specifically to make sure of it, with federal money (“Title I funding”) behind it as an equity mechanism to counteract local funding systems that may benefit rich schools.
So let’s say that I, as the federal government, give this school district (which is responsible for doing the math and doling out the money to schools) $500,000 in Title I funds specifically for King Prep—to “supplement” the other funding the school gets from other sources but isn’t enough to serve the needs of its students adequately.
The school district says: Got it. This $500,000 goes to King Prep. And the district, in fact, sends that $500,000 there.
But then it goes into its other, much larger pot of money, which it controls, and takes $500,000 that was headed for King Prep and says: Well, Alexander Academy got cut out of the feds’ money, so let’s make up for it by taking this other $500,000 that we control and instead of giving it to the Equity Eagles as well, let’s give it to the Local Lions.
The bureaucratic/legislative term for this practice is “supplanting.” The regular, everyday term for it is “skimming”—taking money off the top and spending it to suit your own purposes.
So then when I, as the federal government, ask the school district: Is King Prep getting more money, like we all agreed that it should?
The school district answers: Hey, we gave every single penny of your $500,000 to King Prep.
So the question before us (and the federal government) right now is: Should I leave it at that (the honor system), or should I ask to see the math (let’s check your “specific methodology”)?
Sen. Alexander says: Honor the honor system. Don’t meddle in local control.
Sec. King says: We should probably check the math.
History says, um, forget the honor system, not even a ruling from the nation’s highest legal authority—the US Supreme Court—guarantees that states and local districts will do right by kids.
I’d say our kids need the math…and the meddling.