Secretary DeVos and Title I Portability: A Renewed Push for Federally-Funded School Choice?

Written by: Dirk Zuschlag

Primary Source:  Green & Write, December 20, 2016


New Education Secretary: What Policy?                                                                                               

In all likelihood, Betsy DeVos will soon become Secretary of Education. As an backpack-pixearlier Green & Write post has pointed out, DeVos is best known as a very rich, very well-connected champion of school choice and publically-funded vouchers. Remarkably influential in Michigan politics, she has provoked criticism, and garnered support, for her support for expansive, largely unregulated choice policies affecting schools and students in Detroit. The agenda DeVos intends to pursue at the federal level remains unclear, especially given the rollback of federal power under the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and its express constraints on the Education Secretary’s authority.

A recent Education Week blog post has discussed ESSA provisions that might support choice policies. Another looked for clues about DeVos’ plans in those who may form her “inner circle.” But at least one education commentator has suggested a straightforward way DeVos could turn federal funding into a school choice plan: amend the ESSA to allow for “Title I portability.”

Title I Portability and the ESSA: A New Opportunity?

Title I of the ESSA constitutes the most significant chunk of federal education funding—about $14.5 billion in 2015.  It aims at improving educational opportunities for children living in poverty. Because its raison d’etre has always been to provide schools serving low-income students with resources over and above state and local financing, Title I funding is distributed according to complex formulas prioritizing schools with greater concentrations of poor students. Thus, all states and many school districts receive some Title I funding, but the schools with the higher proportion of poor students receive the most.

Under Title I portability, this federal money would follow each poor student to his/her selected school (including charter schools). In other words, any school classified to participate in the program—potentially including non-pubic sectarian and for-profit schools—would receive Title I funding for each student enrolled. As with all school choice proposals, advocates claim (examples here and here) that portability would reduce the cost of government, increase funding equity for high quality schools, empower parents with more consumer choice, and give competing schools a strong incentive to improve education. Opponents argue (examples here and here) that portability would contravene the civil rights foundation of the ESEA, reduce overall federal funding to the states and districts, spread spending out to create less educational effect, and reallocate a large amount away from schools educating students with the most needs.

DeVos may opt to push Title I portability early in her tenure for two reasons. First, its enactment would constitute a federal analogue to DeVos’ school choice policies in her home state. Public schools in Michigan are principally funded through a state-financed per pupil “foundation grant” that can travel with a student to most near-by traditional public and charter schools. Charters, which include for-profit organizations, are easily authorized and virtually unregulated. Even if, as similarly occurred in Michigan, DeVos could not get “full portability” passed so private schools could receive per pupil Title I funds, partial federal portability would represent a big step toward vouchers.

Second, Title I portability was in the bill that became the ESSA until virtually the last minute. The original House and Senate bills included some form of portability. Although the Senate committee excised a “transferability” option when it reported the bill to the full chamber for passage, the House passed its bill with a portability provision. Title I portability was only dropped during conference committee proceedings in the face of strong interest group opposition and the threat of a presidential veto.

With Republican control of Congress and the Presidency arriving in mid-January, a DeVos-backed ESSA amendment to permit Title I portability might have a substantially increased chance of success. Presumably the House would easily pass it; a Democratic filibuster in the Senate could be problematic for political and procedural reasons; and President Trump would almost certain sign it. With the continuing resolution now funding the federal government set to expire in April, and the regular budgeting and appropriation processes under way before, Title I portability could be attached to spending or other “must pass” legislation relatively early in the new regime.

An ESSA Title I Portability Amendment: Many Old Obstacles

Still, it may not exactly be a slam dunk. Title I portability may not be a high priority among the Republican congressional leadership, who have bigger fish to fry—e.g., Obamacare, the federal budget, entitlement reform, and energy and environmental policy revisions. (Republicans are also already preparing to counter certain ESSA rules recently finalized by the outgoing administration.) Republican leaders may not want to trigger an additional controversy at the same time, particularly since it would provoke the same powerful Republican and Democratic constituencies who rallied against Title I portability in the proposed ESSA.

Even if Title I portability were to become law, it would present complex and time-consuming implementation challenges at all levels. Indeed, since many states (and their districts) fear a substantial reduction in federal funding under Title I portability, they might simply decline a federal invitation to allow it.

We may know more in a month or so where Secretary DeVos intends to take federal education policy. In any case, the debate over Title I portability is unlikely to go away: the ESSA’s reauthorization period ends in 2020.

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Dirk Zuschlag is a second-year education policy doctoral student. His research interests involve the interaction of teacher professionalism and accountability policies. Prior to entering MSU, Dirk taught public high school social studies for sixteen years and served as a learning coach and staff developer. He also spent thirteen years practicing law earlier in his career. He has a J.D. and an M.A. in Education from the University of Michigan, as well as a B.A. from Duke University.