Education Secretary John B. King Jr. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

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THE FEDERAL government gives billions of dollars based on the number of low-income students in local school districts for a simple reason: to help overcome the disadvantages poor children face in learning. But connecting those dollars to those children is anything but simple. School districts have found ways to game the system, using the federal funds not to help poor children but to spend less of their own money. Education Secretary John B. King Jr. is trying to fix that.

Controversy has long surrounded the “supplement, not supplant” provision of the Title I program started under the landmark Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. A 1969 report from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. found flagrant misuses; regulators and school districts have struggled with cumbersome requirements. In the Every Student Succeeds Act, the latest renewal of the law, Congress in a rare display of bipartisanship retained supplement, not supplant but freed districts of what was seen as the most cumbersome requirement. The goodwill that accompanied that effort quickly dissipated as the Education Department began to draft regulations on how provisions of the law were to be put in place.

Under the department’s proposal, school districts would have to show that state and local per-pupil funding in Title I schools was at least equal to the average per-pupil spending in non-Title I schools. Studies have shown that districts with high levels of poverty receive less per pupil in state and local funds than districts with low levels of poverty. Poor families don’t have the clout of their wealthy counterparts to influence how money is allocated; and more experienced, better-paid teachers tend to work in the wealthier districts.

So Mr. King is right about poor students getting the short end of the stick and the need for equity in funding. Whether he is on solid legal ground with the draft regulations is open to some question. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has accused the administration of overreach. He said the proposal would circumvent the law passed by Congress by requiring inclusion of teacher salaries, a conclusion that has been backed up by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. What happens next depends on the final language of the regulations, expected for release this summer. Congressional action is possible; so are lawsuits by states and local school districts. There is no question, as critics of the regulations have argued, that the proposal would cause disruption in the way that many schools do business. But it also is true, as a coalition of civil rights groups pointed out in a letter urging Mr. King not to back down, that “the process of moving from inequity to equity or from injustice to justice has never been without disruption.”