Today, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) proposed a draft piece of legislation for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (currently known as No Child Left Behind). The current law expired in 2007 (though it has been extended) and education stakeholders have been impatiently waiting for Congress to take up a real reauthorization attempt. While the bill is full of interesting new proposals for the law, we thought we would first take a look at how the law deals with teacher comparability, a hot button issue among teachers unions, civil rights groups, and researchers. The Harkin bill makes great strides in comparability, including some ideas that we have supported to eliminate many of the current problems with the rule.
As a refresher, teacher comparability refers to a current provision of Title I that requires school districts to provide equitable state and local resources to both their low-income (Title I schools) and their higher-income (non-Title I schools). School districts currently demonstrate that they are meeting the comparability requirements under Title I by comparing state and local resources (i.e. per pupil expenditures) provided to their low-income Title I schools and their higher-income non-Title I schools. To meet the comparability requirement, resources provided to the Title I schools cannot be more than 10 percent below those provided to non-Title I schools.
Under the Harkin bill, starting in the 2015-16 school year, districts would be required to demonstrate comparability by showing that combined state and local expenditures per pupil – including actual expenditures on salaries and benefits – in their Title I schools (low-income) are not less than the average per-pupil expenditures in non-Title I schools. Districts where all of their schools are Title I would need to show that that the average per pupil expenditure in its higher-poverty schools is equal to that in its lower-poverty schools. Prior to the 2015-16 school year, districts would be held to the existing comparability rules to allow them to prepare for the transition.
These changes go a long way in fixing comparability as it currently stands. First, it eliminates the option for districts to demonstrate comparability through measures other than expenditures like teacher-student ratios. This means that comparability would truly become a measure of funds spent, rather than a comparison of easy to document but hard-to-quantify resources.
Second, it requires that expenditures in low- and high-income schools be equivalent – not within 10 percent. This would give districts far less leeway in variations in funding for their schools. While a 10 percent difference may seem small, it can mean the difference between several teaching positions in some schools or a faculty of less experienced teachers.
But most importantly, the Harkin bill closes what has come to be called the “comparability loophole” that allows districts to ignore variations in teacher compensation due to years of experience in their per pupil expenditure calculations for Title I and non-Title I schools. By allowing districts to overlook such variation in teacher pay, the current law perpetuates the uneven distribution of teachers. Because more experienced, and therefore higher paid teachers, tend to work in high-income schools, low-income Title I schools employ primarily less experienced, lower-paid teachers. As a result, high-income schools receive a greater share of state and local funds to pay for their teachers than low-income schools. Closing the loophole by requiring districts to use actual salary and benefits expenditures in schools will help ensure that low-income schools receive sufficient funds to either compensate more experienced teachers or implement other programs, like teacher incentives or additional after school support, to provide their students with the services and support they need. The bill also contains a provision that would require districts to make the comparability data publicly available.
While the Harkin bill does make great changes to comparability, it falls short in specifying how districts would be required to comply with this new, stricter version of the rule. Even for districts that are already using real measures of expenditures to demonstrate comparability, moving from a 10 percent comparability threshold to a complete equivalence will be a challenge. Past proposals for fixing comparability (like Congressman Chaka Fattah’s (D-PA) ESEA Fiscal Fairness Act) have either suggested phasing in the new threshold or requiring districts to submit plans for how they will reach the new threshold. The Harkin bill currently lacks such provisions. The Harkin bill also doesn't touch on the issue of teacher transfers as a means to meeting comparability - likely to be controversial with teachers unions and other groups.
Of course, the Harkin bill is the first draft of what is likely to be many in the process towards reauthorizing ESEA. Congress will have plenty of opportunities to tinker with the comparability provision, as well as the other major proposals in the bill. Check back with Ed Money Watch as this process continues.