A little-known provision of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is starting to bear fruit.
Deep in the legislative text of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Congress buried a school-level data collection requirement. Every state had to submit school-level data on state and local per-pupil expenditures for school personnel in 2008-09. Once collected, these data would show the degree to which school districts comparably fund their Title I and non-Title I schools, as required in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
The Department of Education completed the data collection a few months shy of its original goal and has just released a report on their findings. Though ED avoids drawing conclusions about the degree to which current comparability requirements are or are not working, the evidence put forth in the report is pretty clear. Current comparability requirements fall far short of ensuring that low income students receive equitable resources as their higher income peers.
As a refresher, teacher comparability refers to a current provision of Title I that attempts to ensure that school districts provide equitable state and local resources to both their low-income (Title I schools) and their higher-income (non-Title I schools). School districts can demonstrate comparability by showing that per pupil expenditures or student-teacher ratios at their low-income Title I schools are within 10 percent of the average in their higher-income non-Title I schools.
The kicker, though, is that the law allows districts to ignore any variation in spending per pupil related to a teacher’s years of experience. Conversely, a district can demonstrate comparability by showing that they have a uniform teacher salary schedule that all schools use. Regardless of how a district chooses to demonstrate comparability, the current methods allow districts to obscure the actual resources – dollars per pupil – in their Title I and non-Title I schools. Because teacher salaries are the largest school expense, this “loophole” undermines the intent of comparability and practically ensures that districts are able to inequitably fund low-income schools.
Because the ARRA data collection effort provides data on actual state and local personnel expenditures at the school level for all schools in America, it can be used to determine the degree to which schools are comparably funded. Using these data, ED calculated the number and percentage of Title I or higher-poverty schools that received below average per pupil personnel expenditures for their district by school grade level. Though the report presents the information rather matter-of-factly, the conclusions are cause for concern.
Though the report provides many ways to cut the data, the most telling analysis is also the simplest. The report shows that 15,749 Title I schools (43 percent of Title I schools in the study) received lower per pupil personnel expenditures than their district average in 2008-09. Of those, 11,228, or 31 percent, received per pupil expenditures that were more than 10 percent below the average – above the threshold for variation in resources currently set in the comparability requirement (though districts are not currently required to include actual spending per pupil). Though this number seems somewhat inoffensive – it is less than 50 percent after all – it is still far from zero, where it should be according to the intent of the law.
The average school in 2009 had 547 students. This means that more than 6 million students in this country (that’s roughly the combined student populations in Arizona, Missouri, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Washington, and Indiana), likely those that need additional resources the most, are attending schools that benefit from dramatically less state and local funding than federal law suggests they should.
Title I funds are intended to provide additional resources for low-income students. Given the wide gap in state and local support for these Title I schools, it is difficult to imagine that those funds are doing much more than bringing per pupil funding in these schools up to funding parity. Clearly, comparability as it currently stands is not doing what it should – ensuring that state and local funding provide a level playing field for the education of low-income students.
Luckily, Congress is considering legislation that would change all this in the Harkin/Enzi Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization bill. Though that bill may be flawed in several ways, Congress should be sure to maintain the bill’s comparability language and do more to ensure that low-income students receive the support they need.