“We must provide a good education for every boy and girl—no matter where he lives,” President Lyndon B. Johnson declared in 1964. President Johnson sought and ultimately secured passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which would be a major element of the education component of his War on Poverty.


Title I of that law was designed to assist students residing in low-income school districts through a compensatory funding model providing additional federal funding to those areas. However, Title I’s administrative burdens, funding complexities, and statutory limitations have rendered it ineffective at achieving its original purpose. The current piecemeal formula for the allocation of the more than $14 billion in Title I dollars distributed to school districts annually does not serve poor children well, and it has done little to “provide a good education for every boy and girl—no matter where he lives.”

Although Title I was designed to provide additional resources to poor children, its complicated nature has meant that there is little relationship between actual poverty and the dollars that flow through the program.

Four Grant Streams

To understand Title I’s complexity, consider the four grant streams that constitute it. Basic Grants, one of the four types of grants available, provide federal funds to any district that has at least 10 children, or 2 percent of its students, who come from low-income families. In other words, almost every district in the country is receiving these funds, even some of the wealthiest.

Concentration grants are allocated to districts with at least 6,500 poor children, so that a district in which 6,500 children are poor qualifies for funding, but a district in which 6,499 children are poor does not.

Targeted Grants provide districts with “three times as much Title I funding as its first 691 children in poverty” for every additional poor child above the 35,515 threshold.

Finally, through the Education Finance Incentive Grant portion of Title I, the U.S. Department of Education derives an equity factor for funding distributions by calculating the average deviation in per-pupil spending from the state mean to create a weighted coefficient of variation.

It’s no wonder, then, that “it is likely that no more than a handful of experts in the country clearly understand the process from beginning to end or could project a particular district’s allocation based on information about its low-income students.”

Enabling Funds to Follow the Children

Congress should transform the current Title I program to enable states to make Title I dollars portable, following children from low-income families to their schools of choice. Rather than relying on the federal government to allocate these funds through a labyrinth of formulas, states could allow families to control those dollars, following their children to education options that work best for them.

For their part, states should then empower parents to use those funds to finance private school tuition, individual courses, online programs, textbooks, tutors, and various other education-related services by enabling Title I funds to follow students in the form of an education savings account (ESA). By following the example of states such as Arizona and Nevada in establishing ESAs, families would have the opportunity to customize their child’s education:

States should establish ESAs, and then under a federal Title I portability option, choose to allow parents to deposit their Title I funds into their child’s ESA. In Nevada, students from low-income families who participate in the ESA option will have $5,700 annually deposited into their accounts beginning in the 2015–2016 school year. If Title I portability were established federal policy, Nevada could then opt in to the portability arrangement, and parents could have an additional amount (likely close to $1,000) deposited into their ESA, taking their account distribution closer to $6,700 annually, greatly increasing their education purchasing power.

Any Title I portability proposal must include strong protections for private schools. The type of language used in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program authorizing statute, which created a scholarship program for children from low-income families in Washington, D.C., to attend a private school of choice, would provide necessary protections within a portability option. Moreover, Title I portability would allow money to follow the student rather than being a payment to a specific school. As Heritage has noted, “[a]dding those federal dollars to a state-awarded scholarship should not impact school operations, mission, or culture, as such funds would be provided directly to the participating student.”

Truly Improving Educational Opportunity

Title I of the ESEA has become overly technical and ineffective at meeting the needs of children from low-income families. Restructuring Title I to give states the option to make those dollars portable would go a long way in achieving the goal of the law’s architect, Lyndon Johnson: improving educational opportunity for poor children.