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Strengthening Comparability Advancing Equity in Public Education

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SOURCE: AP/Jason Hirschfeld

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Achieving equity is the purpose of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, one of the legislative hallmarks of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Title I of the Act now provides more than $13 billion in conditional grants annually to state and local school districts. Through direct financial assistance to public school systems, the federal government supplements opportunities for students from low-income families, with the goal of ameliorating the effects of poverty on educational achievement.

For this policy to be effective, however, federal funds must be added to an already even base of state and local funds so that the federal funds actually can provide a needed boost for students from low-income families. Several fiscal equity provisions in the law are intended to work together to ensure a level playing field before the application of federal funds, but the comparability provisions do not in fact ensure fiscal equity for Title I schools. (See the first report in our package for the history of comparability since 1965, and the second report for a detailed analysis of the consequences of this development over the past 43 years.)

The concept behind comparability is simple: Resources and educational opportunities provided with state and local funds in schools receiving Title I funds must be comparable to those provided in non-Title I schools before provision of any federal funds. The primary problems with the comparability provisions are the following:

  • The law allows districts to ignore differences in teacher salaries across schools. The ƒ result is that hundreds of thousands of dollars less in state and local funds may be spent to educate children in Title I schools than in non-Title I schools.
  • The law does not demand full fiscal equity, only 90 percent. In addition, it limits the ƒ amount of additional state and local funds that can be provided to high-poverty, Title I schools to no more than 10 percent over the amount provided to non-Title I schools.
  • Lax enforcement of the comparability provisions has compromised their effectiveness. ƒ

As Congress reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is now commonly referred to as the No Child Left Behind Act, it should strengthen the comparability provisions to ensure greater fiscal equity and more state and local investment in high-poverty schools.

More on Ensuring Equal Opportunity in Public Education

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