Title I ‘portability’ debate comes to Florida Legislature

Proposed changes to the way federal funding flows to public schools have set off a late-session debate in the Florida Legislature.

Proponents of the changes argue money should follow students to whatever school they attend, and school leaders — not district administrators — should decide how the money gets spent.

School districts are fighting to keep their authority to decide where the money goes. They argue the changes would dilute funding intended to help disadvantaged students in schools with concentrated poverty.

In short, it’s a state-level version of the national debate over funding “portability.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday approved a major rewrite of SB 1362. It now resembles a bill that’s already passed the House.

Among other things, the revised bill would remove caps on high-performing charter schools that want to expand in areas with low-performing public schools and move the deadline for charter school applications from August to February. 

But two of the most controversial changes would affect how public schools, including charters, receive federal funds, especially money intended to help low-income children.

School district representatives lined up before the Senate panel to oppose provisions that would set an 8 percent cap on administrative expenses tied to the federal Title I program. Districts would be required to send most of the remaining funding to public schools directly.

The changes were first proposed in the House, where an analysis by legislative staff found districts reserved large chunks of federal funding for central-office programs.

In the 2014-2015 school year, Florida school districts received approximately $858 million in Title I funds. Of the $858 million, 48 percent was reserved at the district level for district-wide activities and administration. In the 2014-2015 school year, at more than half of all Florida school districts, a larger percentage of Title I Part A dollars were reserved at the district level for administration and district-wide activities than was allocated to participating public schools. Also, more money was allocated to Title I schools than was reserved at the district level at 75% of all LEAs with no “D” and “F” schools.

State Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, offered an amendment to strip the Title I changes out of the bill.

He noted the new federal education law requires school districts to steer the funding to schools where 75 percent or more students are economically disadvantaged. They have the option to steer some resources to disadvantaged students in schools below that threshold, but it’s not required.

The legislation would require districts to share Title I funding with all schools where the percentage of economically disadvantaged students tops the statewide average — currently 60 percent.

“What this does is, quite frankly, take the same amount of money and spread it over far more schools throughout the state,” Montford said.

Montford is a former Leon County Schools superintendent and, alongside his legislative post, heads the statewide district superintendents association. His amendment failed, despite the backing of several districts.

Marjorie Murray of Seminole County Public Schools said districts can make more efficient use of the funding by concentrating on the highest-poverty schools and creating focused programs, rather than pursuing dozens of separate, school-level initiatives.

“We’ve been able to make it a systems approach, because of you, and because of you trusting our school boards and us to make the right decision,” she told the committee.

But Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said districts could keep their existing Title I programs in place. Schools would be free to pool their resources, but they wouldn’t have to.

“What this amendment is doing is ensuring that those dollars that were attributed for Title I actually go to the schools … so they don’t go to overhead, but the dollars actually go to the schools with the students that need the assistance,” she said.

Stargel represents Polk County, which is home to the Lake Wales charter school system. Right now, it’s the only charter school network in the state that functions as a local education agency under federal law. That allows it to receive federal funding directly.

A second controversial change in the legislation would allow more charter school networks to function as LEAs — arrangements that are more common in other states, like Texas. Stargel said the current system, in which school districts receive the money and then pass some of it to charters, “requires more overhead, more expense.” The change, she said, would “allow these dollars to go more quickly to the students.”

Montford also tried unsuccessfully tried to eliminate that change, pointing to provisions in the state constitution that give county-wide school boards authority over all free public schools in their geographic areas.

“I think we’re treading on thin ice when we begin to designate other organizations or groups or schools as the local education agency, when in fact, the school board, constitutionally, has the responsibility for those students,” he said.

The legislation passed the committee largely along party lines, with Republicans in support and Democrats in opposition. It’s now teed up for discussion on the Senate floor.

But it received a lone Republican “no” vote that might augur debates to come in the final four days of lawmaking. It came from Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, the Senate’s appropriations chairman.