We are U.S. News reporters who spent 6 months investigating previously unreported aspects of school funding inequality – specifically, how rich school districts get billions of federal money meant for poor kids.

Our investigation revealed how the federal government’s largest K-12 education program increases the inequality it was created to stop. Title I was created in the Civil Rights era to ensure that poor children received the same education as rich children. Each year, the federal government sends more than $14 billion to school districts through a complicated set of formulas that are used to distribute the money.

Through our investigation, we found that 20 percent of the funds – nearly $3 billion – end up in rich school districts. Although many people want to change the formulas to send more money to poor schools, politics repeatedly gets in the way.

Education Reporter Lauren Camera and Data Editor Lindsey Cook will be here to answer your questions beginning at 1 p.m. EDT. Ask us anything about education, school funding or data-driven stories.

Watch a short introduction video here. The story includes data visualizations that allow you to look up your local school district, compare it to others, and see if it would benefit from possible changes to the formula.


Edit: We're going to step away to do some work now. We'll be back to answer more questions at 4 p.m. EDT, so keep them coming.

Edit 2: We're back answering questions

Edit 3: We're happy to see there's so much interest in this topic! We're stepping away for now, but we'll come back and answer more questions when we have time tonight and tomorrow, so keep them coming.

Edit 4: We have to shut this down now so that we can do more journalism! Thank you for all of your questions. We really enjoyed talking with you all about the story.

Comments: 273 • Responses: 28  • Date: 

leshake642 karma

In your video, you claim that Fairfax county, which is very wealthy, receives $20 million a year while Nottoway, which is very poor, only received $1 million a year. However, Fairfax county has an enrollment of 186,785 as of 2014, while Nottoway has an enrollment of 1,500. That would make the per student spending in Fairfax $107.07 while in Nottoway $416, a factor of more than three times per student. Do you think it was fair to present the data this way?

lindseyrogerscook21 karma

Hi! Thanks for your question. I would recommend reading the article. We talk about the per poor child numbers in the article and have a helpful scatterplot with per poor child number versus poverty rate. You can also lookup these numbers for your local school. The video is meant to be a teaser to the article and isn't a complete summary of the report we did (that would be very difficult to fit into 2 mins).

HausCalls172 karma

What solutions do people have?

lindseyrogerscook81 karma

There has been many proposed solutions that could lead to more of the funding going to districts with higher concentrations of poverty. Here are some examples: * Increase the cut-off point for when a district can't receive funds. Right now, it is extremely low. If a district has a 2 percent poverty rate or 10 or more poor students, it can receive funds. * Eliminate the part of the formula that takes into consideration how much states spend per pupil. Originally this was meant to incentive states to increase their school funding, but ended up rewarding rich states in many examples. * Give more weight to the share of poor kids (the poverty rate) as opposed to taking into consideration the poverty rate or the number of poor kids. This currently benefits large district who may have thousands of poor kids, but a very small poverty rate because of the number of children in the district.

We included data on how some of the proposals would affect local school districts. You can see it in the table here.

craftbeergoggles39 karma

What was the single most shocking piece of data/story you came across?

Also thank you for doing incredible work.

laurencamera69 karma

Thanks for your question. The single most shocking piece of data we came across was the total amount of federal dollars – nearly $3 billion – that are supposed to be targeting concentrations of poor students but actually end up in wealthy school districts. It’s also shocking when schools with extremely high poverty rates get very little Title I money, especially in comparison to wealthier school districts. For example: a district in Mississippi with a child poverty rate above 50 percent is receiving similar Title I funding per child as a district in New Jersey that has a child poverty rate below 8 percent. You can compare districts using the table in the main story. It’s interesting to compare districts within states and sort the table by total Title I dollars or concentration of poverty.

mike_sans45 karma

Similar to /u/microphohn 's question, did you control in any way for local costs? I can see how $1000 in suburban New Jersey might not go as far as those same dollars in rural Mississippi.

lindseyrogerscook28 karma

Title I doesn't control for local cost differences currently. We didn't address this in our story, but I think it's definitely something that would be interesting to look at. Several groups have called for something called the comparable wage index to be a factor in the formula, for the reasons you describe.

FailClaw12 karma

Knowing that, and having spent 6 months researching the issue, what was the reason you decided not to include local cost differences in the story?

lindseyrogerscook0 karma

Since the local cost differences aren't involved in the formula at present, we wanted to concentrate on more immediate changes that could be done. Even with cost of living differences, recalculating the formula based on poverty, creating a threshold and eliminating parts of the formula based on local funding would have more immediate impact for struggling districts.

microphohn16 karma

Can you talk about how sensitive that data distribution is to demographic and political factors? I.E. is it more concentrated in lower density areas, urban areas? Democrat strongholds or republicans strongholds? More likely in a swing state or less likely?

lindseyrogerscook25 karma

In terms of the politics, it varies, which interestingly enough ensures that the issue spans the aisle. It's more about the size of the district, the state and all the other factors that determine the formula, if the representative favors change or not. Two of the largest advocates for change (Sen. Richard Burr and Rep. Glenn Thompson) are Republicans. Both represent rural areas and both proposals have bipartisan support. You can read more about that here.

In terms of demographics, it's difficult to say. The South in particular is affected by this. On average, there are more black students in the South. Black students are also more likely than white students to be poor. Anytime you talk about poverty, particularly generational poverty, race is an important factor.

shoffster19 karma

Were there any states in particular that had a higher occurrence of this type of thing happening?

lindseyrogerscook32 karma

Southern states, in particular, have been affected negatively by the way the formula is now. There are a couple of reasons for that: 1. The Southern states don't have as many super large urban centers (think NYC, LA, Chicago) so they don't benefit greatly from the emphasis on number of poor kids over concentration of poverty. 2. Of the states, Southern states are more likely to have high concentrations of poverty, particularly rural poverty. 3. Southern states, think Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, have rural school districts but don't benefit from the small state minimum -- which is meant to help rural states.

On the other side of the coin, states that do meet what's known as the "small state minimum," particularly states with higher education budgets that don't have state-wide poverty (think Connecticut, Delaware) typically benefit from how the formula is currently written.

In the main story, we have a scatterplot where you can see the poverty rate versus Title I money per poor child at a state level. From that chart, it is really clear which states are benefiting and which states are getting short-changed.

timmyyak3 karma

Very interesting to see the scatterplot for NYS (where I live). I noticed that NYC gets less per child than other big cities in NY, but I assume this is due to the population being much greater. Did you look into more detail as to why this may be (other than population size)?

lindseyrogerscook4 karma

We didn't look at NYC that much. NYC is a difficult case because of the way districts are drawn there. Because of that, we had to omit it from several places in our analysis.

pippilongshanks11 karma


laurencamera9 karma

Great question. And you’re right, there are poor students in every single school district, including the rich ones. But schools in wealthier communities have larger budgets due to local and state funding and are better positioned to provide wraparound services and other important programs for low-income students without siphoning money from the limited Title I pot. As many education policy experts explained to us while reporting this story, it’s much better to be a poor kid in a wealthy school district than a rich student in a poor school district. Urban is not synonymous with rich. In fact, some neighborhoods in urban school districts represent some of the worst concentrations of poverty. As we document here, urban school districts typically receive the most in Title I funding.

Rockmanlives7 karma

I think that the problem is not only the money received but how it's being used.

Aren't Camden (NJ) high schools one of the best funded in the nation yet absolutely atrocious?

Also... rich get richer, poor get poorer :( what the fuck America, what happened to the American Dream?

lindseyrogerscook8 karma

Re: the first part of this q. Certainly it also depends on how the money is used. See the example we've used: a case where the money was used to build Olympic-sized pools. On a lower level though, with a really poor district, money is being used for very basic services like keeping the lights on or paying a math coach. Funding for services like that is difficult to dispute.

SlingJewel10 karma

First off, thank you for doing what you do.

I am an upcoming senior in college and planning to pursue a Master of Public Administrstion to tackle issues in school budgeting and policy. How do you keep hope for change alive and not become discouraged with the disorganization you face?

lindseyrogerscook10 karma

It's hard! Not just on this issue. I also report a lot on racial inequality in a variety of forms. See here, here and here.

It's difficult to report stories like these. We went to school districts that were suffering from lack of funds and it is really eye-opening to see the lack of resources compared to other schools. What kept me from getting discouraged was to see how much the administrators and teachers in those school districts cared for their students and the sacrifices they personally made to help their students. On the policy level, it was encouraging to see how many people cared passionately about this issue. Although people disagree about how to fix the problem of school funding, it's clear to me that most care deeply about American students of all backgrounds and legitimately want to help.

In terms of Title I in particular, we don't expect Congress to redo Title I anytime soon. But, the Department of Education is making moves to better track where funds are going and how they are being used. These are fantastic first steps.

captainkugel9 karma

Do you think the way this was set up was at all intentional? In other words, do you feel as if Title I was created to pay lip service to underserved communities while continuing to support richer, more "likely to succeed" communities behind the scenes?

lindseyrogerscook20 karma

No -- we don't think it was intentional. The program was created in the Civil Rights era and meant to combat school inequality. This program is a good example of good intentions going awry. With such a complicated program, the safeguards meant to help the poorest students didn't always turn out that way. For example, the small state minimum was meant to help poor and rural states but instead ended up sending money to some rich states that met its requirements. Once these provisions were put in place, they became extremely hard to undo because a district/state that was previously getting a certain amount of funding would need to get much less. For members of Congress, their ultimate duty is to their districts, so it isn't politically smart for them to vote for something that would cause their state to lose millions, even if it is agreed upon by experts to be a fairer way to distribute the money.

On a school level, some have abused this program. We talked about an example in our story where a parish in Louisiana used its funds to build two Olympic-sized swimming pools. Thankfully, the Department of Education is making moves to learn more about how the funds are being used, which will increase transparency and minimize bad behavior.

cgatlanta6 karma

Why is the Federal government spending tax money on education?

School taxes are collected locally. They should be spent locally.

Do a study on E-Rate fraud next. I can give some great examples.

lindseyrogerscook2 karma

Always love story ideas and happy to receive them via PM or email :-)

In terms of local dollars, obviously there is a wide variation in local dollars because there is a wide variation in local median incomes, property values, etc. In terms of why the federal government is spending money, this program was created to mitigate those differences in local tax base. NPR recently did a fantastic package on how relying on local taxes affects children.

Certainly the question on if that type of support should be given at all is a politics question.

reportingfalsenews5 karma

Through our investigation, we found that 20 percent of the funds – nearly $3 billion – end up in rich school districts.

So 80% end up in poor school districts? I'm not really seeing the problem here, aside from some minor adjustments perhaps.

And: How is rich defined? Where are the other 80%? I skimmed through the article and didn't find anything on how the other 80% are distributed (do they go predominantly to poor districts? Is there a large portion for "average" districts?)

You also bring up stuff like:

How is it then that a school district like Nottoway, with a child poverty rate of 30 percent, receives so much less in federal support than Fairfax, one of the wealthiest districts in the country?

"so much less" without giving the amount of poor students and the amount of aid each is just trying to influence opinion without any basis. Also, Nottoway is at 1,153$ per poor child, Fairfax at 1,270$ per poor child. I wouldn't call that "so much less", but definitely something to improve on.

Virginia’s Mecklenburg County, for example, with a child poverty rate of 30 percent, receives $1,000 per poor student through Title I – the same amount as poor students in York County, where the child poverty rate is less than 6 percent.

And why exactly should they receive less per poor student? Or have you just worded that incredibly bad?

lindseyrogerscook4 karma

Hi! Thanks for your question.

Rich is defined by the median poverty rate and if it is above or below that (which is about 17 percent). Said in a more readable way:

In fact, 20 percent of all Title I money for poor students – $2.6 billion – ends up in school districts with a higher proportion of wealthy families.

Re: the 80 percent. We chose to focus on two school districts that highlighted the funding disparities (in the total amount of funds per year). If you read through the story and look at the graphs, it includes most districts in the country and we provide multiple examples in our stories of different types of school districts. If you're interested in the nitty-gritty of average versus very poor versus somewhat poor, we encourage you to spend some time with the tables and maps in the story.

So much less refers to the total amount of money the district receives.

Nottoway receives about $775,000 annually from the federal program. And while it's a welcome financial boost, every cent of it goes toward teacher salaries. There is nothing left over for professional development, curriculum support, or reading and math enrichment programs. Meanwhile, Fairfax County, a leafy green suburb outside the nation's capital that's home to well-heeled government workers who helped it become the first county in the U.S. to reach a median household income of six figures, rakes in a whopping $20 million in Title I funding.

The difference on an aggregate level is whopping. On a per poor child basis, there is a difference, but it isn't as much. For a school district that is admittedly scraping by on school funding, those differences count. There is also some base level cost to providing these types of services that makes it easier for a more wealthy school district to provide them.

For the last quote you pulled, one of the things we wanted to get across with the per poor child numbers is that it differs drastically from district to district in a way that is very opaque for the local districts. One might expect that if a district has X poor kids or Y poverty rate that it would get Z dollars. That isn't the case though and that example illustrates that.

In terms of possible reasons why amounts should or shouldn't differ by school district, see Lauren's answer to a similar question.

gracest063 karma

Do you know if charter school Title I funding is counted separately from school district Title I funding? And for school districts that don't match perfectly with county/municipal lines, how did you obtain the poverty data? Thanks so much!

lindseyrogerscook6 karma

School districts that don't fall along county lines (happens a lot in NY and HI) were difficult to track down and we removed some of them because of this problem. The full methodology is here.

Pannra3 karma

Your statistic, 20% of funds, means nothing without context. How many school districts are considered rich in America?

lindseyrogerscook7 karma

You are correct -- context is important. In the story we say:

In fact, 20 percent of all Title I money for poor students – $2.6 billion – ends up in school districts with a higher proportion of wealthy families.

Specifically that refers to the median poverty rate. Schools that "have a higher proportion of wealthy families" have a lower poverty rate than the median.

SchoolLeader1 karma

Did you investigate the regulations about the spending of Title I funding? As the principal of a Title I school, I find it surprising that a school was able to use Title I finds to construct swimming pools. I can't see how that would be tied to improving student achievement.

lindseyrogerscook2 karma

Not for this story. That's more difficult to track because there is no national database. There will eventually be more transparency on how the funds are used and the Department of Education will collect more data on that. When that happens, it will be a lot easier to do analysis on this. Presently, it would be impossible without calling all 13,000+ school districts.

goodnessgoosecious1 karma

How much push-back have you both received during all of your investigation? (From politicians, other reporters, the local communities, etc.)

lindseyrogerscook6 karma

The feedback was really positive across the board. We reached out to local reporters when our story came out and provided them with data for their districts so that they could write about the issue in their communities. We also did training with reporters and got lots of emails from reporters who were trying to localize the story.

We got a few emails from people who work for or represent rich school districts that get lots of money, basically saying that they think the formula should stay the same, with the same emphasis on number of poor children versus concentration of poverty. Our goal for the story wasn't to advocate for a specific change to the formula, but to draw attention to the fact that this program doesn't do a lot for poor students who are in districts with high concentrations of poverty. For a program that was created to make sure students get the same education regardless of wealth, that's a large population that's being overlooked.

Maxi_tax1 karma

Did you run into problems along the way? I'm sure people didn't like you investigating this. Was there harassement? Also, thank you!

lindseyrogerscook3 karma

Education funding is a hot-button issue for all sides. It took a lot of effort to get both wealthy and poor districts to trust us and to understand the goals of our project. We eventually got to people who were excited to talk to us and who were helpful. Not everyone was pleased, but our strategy for this type of story is to be as transparent as possible with our intentions. In this case, it might have been easier for them to open up because the school districts themselves have no control over the formula or the amount of money they receive.

chtucker181 karma

Do the same policies these school districts use to deny poor kids used to discriminate against the disabled?

lindseyrogerscook2 karma

Title I deals specifically with poor students and doesn't deal with disabled students. But, setting aside Title I for now, historically I think we see discrimination in education follow identifiable patterns, no matter what prompts the discrimination. For example, we see from data released from the Department of Education that students with disabilities are suspended at higher rates than other students. We see the same thing for students of color.

mysen251 karma

Thanks for doing this! As reporters, I was wondering, where do you both get your news? Do you have preferred websites or papers?

lindseyrogerscook1 karma

I get some of my news from reddit! I subscribe to a lot of newsletters (morning consult, Kaiser Health, FiveThirtyEight, Science, lots more). In terms of news sources, I have CNN news alerts on my phone and check The Washington Post and U.S. News (of course).

therearemanyaccounts1 karma

What the fuck, how is this a thing?

lindseyrogerscook7 karma

I know, right?

lost_in_life_341 karma

how do the poor kids end up in rich districts in NY state? i thought it was all zoned by where you live and looking at homes here it seems that there aren't any cheap homes in those districts. where do these kids come from?

lindseyrogerscook2 karma

Not sure about NY in particular, but on a national level, poor students can end up in rich districts for a lot of different reasons. Perhaps the district was drawn with diversity in mind and it was intended to have rich as well as poor students. Perhaps the neighborhood dynamics have changed since the district was drawn. For example, the high-poverty school we went to in Fairfax (low-poverty district) was partially the result of a lot of immigration to the area that clustered near the geographic boundary of that district and the one next to it. Sometimes it could be the result of school choice, or a student could live with a family member, or it could be the result of the area creating accessible housing opportunities, or it could be the result of a historical shift where an area rapidly became richer around a poor family and the family held on to its property. The reasons are infinite.

crunchyloam1 karma

PAUSD... Any good notes on silicon valley's most notable school district?

lindseyrogerscook2 karma

we have that school district in our tables. Search it and find out more!

Digimonami1 karma

Why'd you choose to write about things that actually matter rather than Kim Kardashian's latest selfie?

lindseyrogerscook2 karma

We don't cover Kim Kardashian, but I think this is the general struggle of news. We try to balance out long-term and quick turn-around story ideas. For example, in addition to deeper things like this, I also write about politics, 2016 and Donald Trump (although not his latest selfie).

PhillipBrandon1 karma

I've just watched Spotlight about the investigative journalists in Boston around the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal. Who would you like to play you in the movie about your investigation?

lindseyrogerscook2 karma

Love that movie! Rachel McAdams was great in that movie and in general, so going to choose her.

Gaslov1 karma

Would you still have a job had you found out there wasn't actually an issue after six months of investigation?

lindseyrogerscook1 karma

Before we invest that type of time, we do a proposal and some initial research to make sure we are correct on the thesis of our story. In the case of this story, that was very easy because this was a widely known issue in public policy circles.

PhillipBrandon1 karma

Do either of you feel that you benefited, personally, from unfair distribution to your own primary and secondary school districts?

lindseyrogerscook2 karma

I attended Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia for my high school education. According to the data, the school district gets $38 million, so definitely on the high side and the poverty rate is currently 18 percent, which is a little higher than average. It's a very large school district and thus, benefits from the emphasis on number of poor children versus concentration of poverty.

SpinoC6660 karma

Hey Lindsey! This is Chris from NMI, we sat next to each other in class. Really glad you stuck with journalism!

If I had to ask a question, I would say how has any of the information you've learned through Grady/NMI helped you start investigating into Title I distribution?

lindseyrogerscook3 karma

Hi Chris! I think it has. As far as any specific technical skills I learned at NMI, I would say no, mostly because things we learned like Adobe Flash are no longer industry standard. It exposed me to a lot of stuff and made me want to learn more. In terms of Grady, I learned a lot about journalism there and at The Red & Black that I used in this project and in other projects. Hope you are doing well!

dixonnuts-1 karma

My question is this: How are you doing?

lindseyrogerscook1 karma

Could use some coffee at this point but otherwise doing well! Thank you for asking.