Last week, Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Thad Cochran (R-MS) introduced a bill, called the Fiscal Fairness Act, which would close the Title I comparability loophole. This bill is the companion to a similar bill introduced in the House of Representatives by Congressman Chaka Fattah (D-PA). Closing the comparability loophole is an important step towards ensuring equitable state and local funding between Title I and non-Title I schools and one that should become a permanent part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
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 balancing 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. Even when districts use per pupil expenditures to demonstrate comparability, they can ignore variation in teacher salary due to years of experience, the most significant driver of teacher pay.
More experienced, and therefore higher paid, teachers tend to seek out positions in higher-income schools, while low-income, Title I schools tend to 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 federal comparability rule would never know it. This is known as the comparability “loophole.”
The Fiscal Fairness Act, introduced by Bennet and Cochran in the Senate and Fattah in the House, would ensure that comparability determinations reflect actual funding provided to schools. The bill would require districts to demonstrate comparability using actual per pupil expenditures including variation in teacher salary due to years of experience. It would also require that per pupil expenditures in Title I schools are no more than 3 percent below those in non-Title I schools, meaning that Title I schools must receive at least 97 percent of the resources provided to non-Title I schools. Under the current comparability rule, resources in Title I and non-Title I schools can differ by as much as 10 percent.
Comparability is likely to become a major part of negotiations during reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, currently called No Child Left Behind). In the past, disagreements over the details of comparability and closing the "loophole" have been a sticking point for bill passage. Hopefully, the current bipartisan support for the Fiscal Fairness Act will ensure the bill a greater chance of inclusion in a final version of ESEA.
Ed Money Watch has written frequently about the importance of strengthening comparability. Select the links below to read more:
- On the latest research revealing disparities in teacher pay and per pupil expenditures due to weak comparability requirements here.
- On Representative Fattah’s bill here.
- On the role of teacher transfers in strengthening comparability here.
- On the Obama Administration’s Blueprint and its take on comparability here.