Last school year, the small Lakeland district outside Memphis received about $64,000 in Title I funds to help educate poor students. Next year, it’s expecting nearly $427,000.
The Collierville district, 20 miles away, got about $635,000 last year. Next year? It’s expecting more than $3.1 million, a 490 percent jump.
And Germantown will do best of all. That district expects its Title I funds to increase nearly 850 percent to $2.2 million.
But poverty hasn’t risen precipitously in those places, which split off from Shelby County Schools in 2014 to form smaller districts and which have far fewer poor families. A quirk in the rules for allocating those federal funds will give all but Millington a big budget boost next year.
Combined, the five municipalities will receive an extra $7.1 million.
Meanwhile, in what could be described as a cruel irony, Shelby County Schools is set to receive $5 million less in Title I funds than it did last year — in part because of the secession of those six districts.
The changes have flabbergasted local educators.
“Something’s wrong with that equation,” said Deborah Atkins, who lives in Bartlett and teaches in Shelby County Schools. “I know we have (poor) students in the municipalities, but it’s not equitable.”
Those slated to benefit from the extra cash aren’t sure what it all means, either.
“I was surprised,” said Tammy Mason, superintendent of Arlington Community Schools, another one of the municipalities. Arlington is set to receive an extra $897,000. “We don’t have a plan yet.”
The funding shifts are another significant consequence of the tumultuous merger and subsequent de-merger of Memphis’s urban and suburban school districts. They also reveal how the labyrinthine method of allocating Title I money can perpetuate significant inequities.
Chalkbeat asked local, state and federal officials to explain the changes. Here’s what they told us.
Why is Shelby County Schools losing Title I money?
Last year, Shelby County Schools received $65 million in Title I funds. Next year, that number is expected to drop by 8 percent, or $5 million. There are three key reasons why, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
One: Shelby County Schools has a smaller share of the nation’s poor.
Title I funding is allocated based on each district and state’s portion of the total number of poor students in the U.S. That means that when poverty in one school district increases faster than in others, it shifts money away from those other districts even if their poverty levels haven’t changed.
And the share of those students living within the boundaries of Shelby County Schools has dropped, from 0.51 percent to 0.42 percent.
Two: The district is now smaller in the eyes of the federal government.
This year was the “first to reflect to creation of the new municipal school districts, which meant that the boundaries for Shelby used in the Census estimates were smaller than those used in the prior year,” according to the U.S. Title I program office.
Three: The new federal education law allows the state to withhold more Title I money from districts.
That money, taken from all Tennessee districts, will be redistributed by the state for school improvement efforts. Since most of the state’s lowest-performing schools are in Memphis, the district can expect to get a good chunk of that back.
Why are those five breakaway districts gaining $7 million?
This year will be the first year the U.S. Department of Education recognizes the six municipal districts in its funding calculations — nearly three years after the smaller districts formed.
That’s because the federal government only updates its list of school districts and boundaries every two years, and calculations about poverty lag another year behind that.
In the meantime, Title I funding for Shelby County Schools and the six municipalities was given to the Tennessee Department of Education as a bulk sum. The state then divided it among the seven school districts based on the percentage of poor students enrolled in food or income assistance programs and a few other criteria.
Now that the federal government recognizes the six municipal districts, a new process has kicked in to establish Title I funding levels.
In the first year of that process, each municipality inherits the student poverty level of the district it broke off from — in this case, Shelby County Schools. This is true even if poverty rates between the districts are drastically different.
State education officials called that policy “counterintuitive” and urged federal officials to reconsider. But the state ultimately accepted the extra funds when federal officials informed them that the money would go to other states if they declined.
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Note: Shelby County Schools includes some unicorporated areas outside Memphis city limits
Source: Tennessee Department of Education (2015-16) and American Community Survey (2015)
Over the next three years, the Title I funds sent to the municipalities will gradually decrease to match their own poverty rates.
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Source: Tennessee Department of Education
Why is one district losing a bit of Title I funding?
Not all of the municipalities are gaining money out of this policy. Millington’s student poverty rate is significantly closer to Shelby County Schools’ rate, so inheriting the larger district’s numbers didn’t change much.
In fact, the district is slated to lose nearly $128,000 this year. Officials say they have planned for that, and will take about $30,000 from Millington’s reserve fund to help make up the difference.
“We believe we’ll be able to carry on with the things we want to do,” superintendent David Roper said.