Being proven right is usually a cause for some self-satisfaction, but U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was troubled Wednesday when he announced results of a new Department of Education study on Title I and other high-poverty schools.
“Today, we’re releasing key findings that confirm an unfortunate reality in our nation’s education system,” said Duncan during a phone call with journalists. “Many public schools serving low-income children aren’t getting their fair share of state and local funding.” (Read Duncan’s entire statement here.)
By “many” Duncan means a lot. More than 40 percent of Title I schools spent less per student on salaries than non-Title I schools within the same district, according to the first-of-its-kind study. U.S. Department of Education researchers examined teacher salaries and spending on other resources for more than 13,000 school districts across the country. Schools had to submit the information as a requirement for receiving funds under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).
Of California’s 10,000 or so schools, well over 6,000 receive funds from the federal Title I program to provide additional support for children considered at risk due to poverty. The Department of Education’s report came one day after the U.S. Census Bureau released new figures showing that more than one in five U.S. children live in poverty, an increase of over a million children between 2009 and 2010.
Under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA is the previous and soon to be subsequent name of No Child Left Behind), schools eligible for Title I funding first have to receive state and local funding that’s comparable to the amount given to non-Title I schools. Since about 80 percent of funding goes to salaries, it should be simple to calculate. However, the definition of comparability was compromised by a loophole in Title I language that allows reporting by district-wide salary averages rather than by individual schools.
Here’s the legalese version as written in the law (a note of caution: skip this if you’re prone to dizziness):
(B) Determinations – For the purpose of this subsection, in the determination of expenditures per pupil from State and local funds, or instructional salaries per pupil from State and local funds, staff salary differentials for years of employment shall not be included in such determinations.
The loophole makes it nearly impossible for the U.S. Department of Education to know whether districts are giving Title I schools at least an equal amount of state and local funds as the rest of the schools in the district.
“In far too many places Title I money is filling budget gaps rather than being used to close achievement gaps,” said Duncan.
That would change if the reauthorization of ESEA authored by U.S. Senators Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming) makes it through Congress. They’ve inserted language to close the loophole.
California takes the lead
In its usual ambivalent fashion, California is a bit ahead of the rest of the nation in requiring better reporting, but is not doing so well in ensuring that the data is accurate and uniform. In 2005, California passed SB 687, the first law in the country requiring every district to report per-pupil spending annually – including teacher salaries – on a school-by-school basis. The bill, by State Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), amended the School Accountability Report Card, or SARC: detailed reports containing demographics and other information that every school must complete and make public.
One problem with SARC, said attorney John Affeldt with Public Advocates, is that the State Department of Education has not provided clear guidance on the reporting categories. In a report he co-authored on SB 687, titled “Lifting the Fog of Averages,” one example, said Affeldt, is that while some districts include librarians in the same group as teachers, others put librarians in a different pot. And when counting people who work at more than one school, such as custodians and resource specialists, some districts will divvy up the salary among all the schools, while others make it a district expenditure.
“A key next step for federal and state policy is to move toward having all districts follow the same decision rules in accounting for expenditures,” said Affeldt. “That way, we will finally be able to compare school-level spending across districts and even across states.”
For now, the ambiguity in the law, especially in Title I, allows districts to continue the practice of putting the lowest-paid
teachers, i.e., the least experienced, to work in the highest-poverty schools.
California Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica) is attempting to take SB 687 a step or two further. Her bill, AB 18, would create a weighted student funding formula that would give schools more money for each low-income child enrolled. AB 18 is on a two-year track, and should be taken up in the next legislative session.
But Duncan insists that states and districts don’t need to rewrite their funding formulas to abide by the intent of Title I. Most districts would have to change only 1 to 4 percent of their total school-level expenditures in order to provide comparable funding for their Title I and high-poverty schools, said Duncan. But that small shift could be huge for Title I schools, bringing an increase in funding of between 4 and 15 percent.
The U.S. Department of Education has put a searchable database on line for educators, parents, policymakers and anyone in the public to see how their local districts stack up in funding high-poverty schools. From there, Duncan said he hopes to get a national conversation going. Only Congress can change the actual law, said Duncan, but that doesn’t mean that school districts can’t start doing the right thing.