One of the most controversial rules under the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act is the comparability provision of Title I. This provision is intended to ensure that school districts provide schools that receive funding under Title I ($14.5 billion in fiscal year 2010) and those that do not with equitable state and local resources before the addition of federal Title I funds. Yet statute still allows resource inequities to persist, undermining the goal of Title I funding and disadvantaging low-income students and the schools they attend. Earlier this week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on the potential effects of strengthening the comparability law. Unfortunately, the report fails to take a hard line on the importance of ensuring equitable funding for Title I schools primarily because it focuses on transferring teachers, rather than rethinking how educational services are provided.
Current law allows school districts to meet the federal comparability rule through methods that obscure the amount of state and local funding that schools receive before they are allocated federal Title I funding. For example, districts can demonstrate comparability by comparing student-instructional staff ratios between Title I and non-Title I schools or by presenting a district-wide salary schedule that demonstrates that all teachers with similar qualification earn the same amount of money in the district. These methods overlook the variation in teacher pay due to years of experience, a significant factor in teacher salaries.
Because more experienced, and therefore higher paid teachers tend to work in higher-income schools, low-income, Title I schools employ primarily less experienced, lower-paid teachers. As a result, higher-income schools receive a greater share of state and local funds to pay for their teachers than low-income schools. But an observer viewing school resources through only the comparability rule would never know it.
The GAO finds that the vast majority of school districts use the teacher-student ratio option to demonstrate comparability. District officials they interviewed said that meeting this requirement was not challenging.
As a result of the shortcomings in the comparability provision of the law, education advocates and policymakers have proposed strengthening comparability by requiring districts to demonstrate equitable distribution of actual per pupil expenditures, including teacher salaries that reflect years of experience. Though this proposal has been controversial, it appears to be the most reliable way to measure and compare the resources schools actually receive – if that is truly what policymakers want the rule to do.
The GAO concludes that some districts would struggle to demonstrate comparability under this proposed method. Some districts reported that they would have to transfer teachers among schools or renegotiate teacher contracts, harming morale and union relationships. It also concludes that sending more experienced teachers to low-income schools may not improve quality at those schools. It certainly sounds like the GAO is saying low-income schools do not currently receive equitable resources in terms of actual spending, but that it’s not worth the trouble to strengthen the comparability rules.
This conclusion is disappointing on a number of levels.
First, the report fails to take seriously the degree to which low-income Title I schools receive inferior resources. In fact, the GAO did not even attempt to assess the degree to which this is in fact the case.
But more importantly, the report shows a complete lack of understanding of the purpose of strengthening comparability. The purpose is not to force experienced teachers into low income schools. It is widely recognized that this is a bad idea for both the teachers and the students and currently proposed legislation would forbid forced transfers. Instead, the purpose is to ensure that low-income students are receiving the services they need to overcome obstacles and succeed in school and beyond. This does not necessarily require expensive teachers; it could be accomplished with well thought-out and implemented programs both in and out of the classroom.
For example, the comparability requirement could be met by providing Title I schools with additional funding, not for teacher salaries, but for a targeted math support program or an afternoon tutoring program. The addition of a single academic counselor could potentially do more in low-income schools than trading in three new teachers for three teachers with 20 years of experience. Rethinking how low-income schools provide educational services and reapportioning resources accordingly is the key to reaching comparability, not teacher transfers.
By reducing this issue to one of the difficulty surrounding transferring teachers, the GAO report does a disservice to legislators and stakeholders that are interested in strengthening comparability. The report suggests that there is no room for creative thinking around resource distribution among schools, giving schools a free pass when it comes to ensuring that low-income students are given the support they need. We’d like to see the GAO and other government agencies take a closer look at the actual impact of existing resource inequities and propose ways districts can rethink they way they fund schools and support their students. Just because strengthening comparability will be hard does not mean it isn’t worth doing.