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Education Secretary defends new funding rules as leading senator expresses outrage
New regulations would nudge states to equalize funding among local schools, something Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) says the new law expressly refused to do. - photo by Eric Schulzke
New federal education funding guidelines could cause chaos in school districts, critics say, forcing many districts to lay off or cut programs to ensure that all schools within a district are being funded equally.

As things stand, 23 states spend less on low-income schools than they do on wealthier schools. Those disparities sometimes result from relying on unequal local taxes. But many wealthier schools also pull in more resources to pay more experienced teachers, because teachers with seniority will often move to cushier jobs.

The purpose of the proposed regulations is to force districts to include faculty salaries in their calculations, ensuring that states use the targeted federal funds to "supplement not supplant" their own spending.

But the proposed regulations have Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) fuming. Alexander is the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee, a former education secretary under the first President Bush and the key player in the negotiations that produced the new law last December.

Alexander took to the floor of the Senate and his committee room to express outrage at funding proposals that would require states to equalize funding between low income and better off high schools to be eligible for federal funds targeting low income schools.The new regulation "violates the law," Alexander said, and "seeks to do it in a way that is specifically prohibited by the Every Student Succeeds Act."

Congress hotly debated this issue last fall, and, as Alexander points out, expressly chose not to touch it. The new law includes existing language that "Nothing in this title shall be construed to mandate equalized spending per pupil for a state, local educational agency or school." Instead, the statute requires "comparability" in services and programs, expressly setting aside differences in teacher salary.

The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service echoed Alexander's assessment, noting that the new regulations would "effectively require (local educational agencies) to use actual teacher salaries for SNS purposes despite the fact that the ESSA did not address this matter."

If made final, CRS concluded, the new regulations would be vulnerable to court challenge, as "a court could potentially conclude that ED lacks the statutory authority to attempt to impose a similar requirement via other methods, including promulgation of the proposed SNS regulations.

This battle to contain the Department of Education is not new. If we had a national school board, Arne would be a great chairman, Alexander told Politico last fall. But Americans dont want a national school board. He doesnt seem to understand that.

In fact, the compromise that became law in December of last year was driven by frustrations from both Democrats and Republicans that the Education Department was overreaching and micromanaging.

And Rick Petrilli, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Fordham Institute, took to Twitter to refer to the new ESSA as the "Education Secretary Stay Away Act." The bipartisan replacement, as Petrilli suggested in his Tweet, sharply constrains the education secretary's power.