Wake County is cutting back on both the number of elementary schools that will get federal funding to help poor children and the amount of money schools will get per child from that program.
Under the change, only schools with at least 45 percent of students receiving federally subsidized lunches can share in the more than $20 million in federal Title I dollars the district receives annually. The 10 percentage point increase in that eligibility cutoff means less funding for some schools and no Title I money for others starting this fall.
Wake’s 59 Title I schools use the money for a variety of things, including hiring extra staff, buying new computers and providing staff training. Low-income students, on average, don’t do as well academically as more affluent students.
School administrators say the change in distribution is needed because the rising number of low-income students is forcing the district to reallocate the Title I dollars to the schools that have the greatest needs.
“Title I funds are designated for students that are high needs,” said Cathy Moore, Wake’s deputy superintendent for school performance.
At least six elementary schools that would have received money under the previous requirements won’t get any Title I dollars this fall. An additional 11 elementary schools will be phased out of the program after the 2015-16 school year.
The changes relate to Title I, the federal government’s oldest education program. More than $14 billion annually in Title I funds is provided to schools that have high numbers of poor children.
For more than a decade, Wake provided Title I funding to elementary schools where at least 35 percent of students are receiving federally subsidized lunches.
But Wake school administrators told the school board earlier this month that they’re raising the threshold for the 2015-16 school year to 45 percent of students receiving free and reduced price lunches.
Administrators cited the rising percentage of all elementary students who receive subsidized lunches – from 34 percent in the 2005-06 school year to 39 percent in March. In addition, the number of Title I schools where at least 65 percent of students are receiving subsidized lunches has increased in the past decade from two schools to 19 schools.
Melanie Rhoads, Wake’s Title I director, said it no longer makes sense to provide Title I money to schools whose percentage of low-income students is below the county average.
The change means 51 elementary schools will receive Title I funding for the 2015-16 school year. That group includes 11 schools whose low-income population is between 35 percent and 45 percent, the new standard. These schools will be grandfathered in the program for one more year.
Terry Stoops, director of education research studies for the John Locke Foundation, a conservative Raleigh think tank, said Wake is taking a positive step in reallocating scarce resources. But he said that federal guidelines have created lax standards for verifying whether families meet income requirements to get subsidized lunches.
“I’m not saying there’s widespread fraud,” he said. “But I’m saying there’s few controls in how free and reduced lunches are awarded. For the parents, there’s very little verification, but that’s not the fault of the district.”
In addition to funding fewer schools, Wake is also providing fewer dollars per student to each Title I school. This school year, Title I schools where at least half the students are low income get $850 for each of those children. Under the new formula, it will max out at $650 per low-income student.
Moore, the deputy superintendent, said the district will try to offset the lower per-pupil funding by covering some of the things that schools were using Title I money for. Also, 12 Title I schools are in a new district program where they will get extra support.
“Some schools are going to get less, but our job isn’t to focus on the dollars but how we can support the students at the schools,” Moore said.
At the same time that Wake is raising Title I requirements for elementary schools, the district will begin providing Title I money to any secondary schools where at least 75 percent of students receive subsidized lunches.
The plan presented by school system staff drew a mixed response from school board members, but not enough to put the changes on hold. School board member Bill Fletcher said staff is putting the Title I money where it’s needed the most.
“I am pleased with the discussion and the direction,” he said. “I’m a believer that if we all do is what we’ve done, then all we get is what we’ve gotten.”