Title I: Where Policy Drives Equity

Elizabeth Grant

Since its passage 50 years ago, Title I has embodied the nation’s enduring commitment to educational equity and opportunity. This section of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) provides financial assistance for the education of low-income children. Through Title I, more than 21 million children receive extra educational services.

As I write, we are steps away from a possible reauthorization of ESEA. The recently passed Senate reauthorization continues the $14 billion appropriation for Title I— nearly a tenth of all school funding and a remarkable federal investment in educational equity. Yet, ultimately, Title I may be more influential as a policy vehicle than a funding stream.

In their new report, Title I at 50: A Retrospective, AIR researchers Andrea Boyle and Katelyn Lee call the development of Title I “a turning point for the role of the federal government in education. Historically … the federal government got involved only when issues of vital national interest were at stake. But, reflecting national concern in eliminating poverty, Title I laid the foundation for an ongoing federal role in education by making educational equity that kind of vital issue.”

Policy, after all, is hypothesis. Policymakers set a course of action—reflecting a theory about how change will happen—and hope that in following their course, their goals will be met. The great challenge is to base law on a theory sound enough to hold up through the real-world complexities of implementation. Through each iteration of Title I, either through reauthorization or substantial amendments, we have been refining theory and testing new hypotheses to further educational equity.

As a policy vehicle, Title I has the potential to shape the fundamental ways we offer options and opportunities for low-income students. It drives targeted policy—for example, by defining the activities deemed necessary to turnaround the lowest-performing schools. It is also the vehicle for more conceptual goals, particularly ones that build on Title I’s history of furthering civil rights.

For example, No Child Left Behind, the last ESEA authorization, dramatically advanced conversation and decision-making around how best to meet the educational needs of subgroups of children, including major ethnic or racial groups, economically disadvantaged students, English language learners, and students with disabilities. Improving Title I should never stop. We continually need better theories to undergird the law and direct federal, state, and local activities.

Equal education is in the national interest. Policymakers recognized that five decades ago. So today, the next authorization must further refine our national theory about how to improve educational outcomes for low-income children—what activities and supports drive school improvement, what it takes to turnaround low-performing schools, which state and district conditions are necessary to create change and sustain improvement, and how federal incentives or mandates can support school improvement.

What we need in this Title I reauthorization is a better theory than in the last authorization, and a better one after that, and after that.