Districts Would Have to Show Equity for High-Poverty Schools Under Proposed Biden Rule

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The Biden administration wants school districts to show that they’re treating their high-needs schools fairly when it comes to funding and staffing, under a proposed requirement related to the most-recent federal COVID-19 relief package.

The U.S. Department of Education’s proposal would require states to publish information about how each eligible school district is shielding those schools from disproportionate cuts in the next few years, as a condition of receiving funding under the American Rescue Plan, which President Joe Biden signed into law last March.

The proposed requirement would advance the department’s goal of “ensuring that schools and [districts] serving large proportions of historically underserved groups of students … receive an equitable share of State and local funds as the Nation continues to recover from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our education system,” the department said in a Tuesday Federal Register notice.

If adopted, the requirement could provide helpful data for researchers and policymakers seeking to understand the impact of the American Rescue Plan, and trends in school funding, over the next few years. But the information’s value could also be hindered by confusion and a fast-approaching deadline.

What the ‘maintenance of equity’ requirement does

The American Rescue Plan’s “maintenance of equity” requirement is essentially designed to prevent high-poverty schools from bearing the brunt of funding cuts at the state and local level. It is also designed to prevent such disproportionate staffing cuts. The provision applies to state funding of districts as well as how districts distribute funding to each of their schools.

Supporters of the requirement say that it would help stop a repeat of what happened after the Great Recession roughly a dozen years ago, when disadvantaged students were frequently the most affected by state and local funding cuts compared to their relatively affluent peers.

“Public posting of data and information on how each [district] in the State is maintaining equity is an important accountability tool for [states] and the Department,” the Education Department’s notice also said.

Yet skeptics have said, among other things, that the maintenance of equity requirement in the American Rescue Plan puts a new burden on schools that focuses too much on finances and not enough on students’ progress or schools’ results.

It remains to be seen to what extent cuts to education funding emerge as a widespread and serious issue in the years ahead, given the surge in federal K-12 aid during the pandemic that has led to nearly $200 billion in direct funding for state and local education agencies.

More background on maintenance of equity can be found here.

The department has already posted state-level data related to maintenance of equity, including the information states are using as a baseline.

In an August letter to chief state school officers outlining additional information about the issue, the department estimated that 70 percent of school districts would be exempted from the maintenance of equity requirement because they enroll fewer than 1,000 students. But agency also noted that collectively those districts educate just 15 percent of the nation’s students.

The law also allows for districts to get an exemption if there are “exceptional or uncontrollable” circumstances.

What the requirement would do

Under the proposed requirement, states would have to publish this information on each of its districts by Dec. 31 of each applicable school year on their websites “in a location accessible for parents and families.” The the data would have to include:

  • Whether a school district is exempt from the maintenance of equity requirement;
  • If a district is not exempt, which schools are identified as “high-poverty” and therefore protected by maintenance of equity requirements;
  • Which if any schools are exempt from those requirements;
  • Per-pupil funding for schools identified as high-poverty in fiscal 2021, 2022, and 2023;
  • Per-pupil funding for all schools in those fiscal years;
  • Per-pupil levels of full-time equivalent staff in high-poverty schools; and
  • Per-pupil levels of such staff in all schools, among other requirements.

Marguerite Roza, the director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, said she was worried about adding new reporting requirements onto states concerning school districts, especially since many states have struggled for years to comply with a requirement under the Every Student Succeeds Act to report per-pupil spending on a school-by-school basis.

Given that education officials are still looking to understand the maintenance of equity requirement itself in the American Rescue Plan, Roza wrote in an email, “How on earth would they be able to do that in under 3 months?”

The general idea behind maintenance of equity has been a public issue, and a point of tension, for several years.

In 2016, the Obama administration used the concept to try to implement requirements for how districts funded their schools with large shares of disadvantaged students compared to more-affluent schools. Ultimately, that effort was unsuccessful.

Those interested in commenting on the Biden administration’s proposed requirement must submit comments on or before Nov. 4. to do so.

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