Curious about the ESSA funding debate but not sure where to start or why to care? Let me see if I can help sort the substantive, political, and other aspects of the story out for you -- and point you towards and even more obscure part of ESSA that may make the current debate moot.
As you may already know, Senator Alexander and several education groups (including the teachers unions) are strongly opposed to an ESSA rule that the Obama education department has developed. No doubt, requiring districts to document equitable funding outcomes for Title I schools would require a series of changes for states and districts.
In extremely simplified terms, the Obama rule would require that states and districts show that they weren't spending more money on poorer schools* than less poor ones. Complying with the requirement could result in large-scale transfers of teachers, cutting of programs at middle-poverty schools, and other unwanted outcomes.
In establishing this requirement, the Obama rule goes against the flow of play these days, which under ESSA generally limits the USDE's role in overseeing the states and districts and how they use roughly $15 billion a year in federal education funding. According to ESSA, districts are relieved of having to identify specific services as supplemental and the USDE is specifically prohibited from requiring a “specific methodology” for distributing state and local funds.
Ed Week has covered this a number of times, including these two pieces (Education Secretary Advocates Robust ESSA Rules Amid GOP Backlash, Report to Congress: Proposed Spending Rules Appear to Exceed ESSA Language). An NPR story this morning (The 'Intolerable' Fight Over School Money) adds that Senator Alexander has told states to resist this regulation if it isn't changed or stopped through other means. A NYT piece by New America's Kevin Carey (Why There’s an Uproar Over Trying to Increase Funding for Poor Schools) tells the backstory and makes the case in favor of the Obama position.
During a phone interview earlier this morning, Carey explained that the crafty folks at the USDE decided that the new law didn’t block them from requiring states to document comparable outcomes, as long as they didn’t meddle in the methods. “It’s a new and very different interpretation of the ‘supplement, not supplant’ rule,” according to Carey – but not an unjustifiable one. (On Twitter, economist Bruce Baker took issue with Carey's analysis, and the original headline of the piece [Why Poor Districts Receive Less Government School Funding Than Rich Ones] was quickly changed.)
It comes down to semantics, really. If ESSA bans the USDE from establishing any specific method of allocating funding, does that also mean that it can’t require the resulting amounts to be equitable?
Nine Democratic Senators (including Senator Sanders and Senator Warren) are supporting the Obama position. A group of civil rights organizations is also supportive.
We still don't know where Senator Murray and Hillary Clinton stand on the issue -- I've asked the Clinton campaign and will let you know when they respond.
It’s worth adding that the Obama administration has made regular use of whatever flexibility it can find in federal law in the past. The 2009 Race to the Top initiative, the SIG program, and the NCLB waiver program all stretched – or perhaps broke – the limits of the USDE’s statutory and regulatory powers.
In pushing ahead with this ESSA rule the Obama administration could be seen as creating problems for the Clinton campaign. It certainly isn't taking a backseat and giving the presumptive nominee as much maneuvering room as possible.
Even if the USDE blinks first, funding expert Marguerite Roza argues in the Brookings blog that a transparency provision put into the law by Senator Bennet is going to end up having much the same effect (More equitable spending on its way regardless of rulemaking).
Roza argues that, when differentials between schools are finally published, it will become difficult for lawmakers to continue doing what they've done for so long:
"When the spending data are daylighted, the evidence will be clear that many districts have hardwired systematic spending inequities in their operations.... School boards will have no choice but to do the hard work of rethinking longstanding policies that contributed to the uneven spending."
*Correction: The original version stated poorer districts, not schools.