Revealing Hidden Inequities in School Districts

Reporting Requirements for Individual Schools Are Necessary

Inequities in resource allocation within school districts have long gone unnoticed. Experts at CAP event discuss what we can do to bring them to light.

For more on this event, please see its event page

It’s common knowledge that there are wide disparities in funding between wealthy and less wealthy school districts. But two CAP reports released this morning show that there are also glaring inequities among schools within districts that have high and low concentrations of low-income students.

Russlynn Ali, who studied this problem in California schools before joining the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, joined other experts yesterday to speak about the data and what they imply at a Center for American Progress event featuring Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) giving introductory remarks.

According to Ali, there was a disparity of about $1 million in funding one year between two Los Angeles high schools in the same district, Granada Hills and Amino Locke. That figure, she recalled, got people’s attention.

The problem isn’t new, but it’s only recently that data has been available for researchers to analyze rigorously. School districts in the United States rarely report on actual expenditures at individual schools. The report by CAP Associate Director for Education Research Raegen Miller released today, “Comparable, Schmomparable: Evidence of Inequity in the Allocation of Funds for Teacher Salary Within California’s Public School Districts,” relies on data from schools in California. Efforts by Ali and others in the state have resulted in S.B. 687, a law requiring school districts to report expenditures at individual schools.

Miller’s research reveals that a school’s average teacher salary tends to decrease as the number of impoverished students at a school increases.

Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provides federal grants to schools with high concentrations of low-income students, requires “comparability” in funding for schools at the state and local levels before providing federal resources to schools with poorer students. “The basic premise of Title I is supplement, not supplant,” explained Ali.

The Title I funding is meant to provide resources above and beyond normal levels rather than just bring these low-income schools up to the same level as other schools in the district. But as it turns out, districts may be doing just that—using federal money as a substitute for the funds they should be directing toward lower-income schools. “The inequity is intolerable enough, but the opacity prevents reform and frustrates cost effectiveness studies,” said Miller.

CAP also released yesterday the report, “Lifting the Fog of Averages: Enacting and Implementing California’s Requirement to Report Actual Per Pupil Expenditures School by School,” which details how to implement California’s more transparent reporting requirements for school districts at the national level. The authors, John Affeldt and Guillermo Mayer, are attorneys at Public Advocates Inc., a San Francisco firm involved in the successful campaign to convince the California state legislature to pass S.B. 687.

Affeldt and Mayer were optimistic when speaking about their findings that a proposal similar to S.B. 687 could attract bipartisan support in Congress, as S.B. 687 did in the California state houses. But Mayer warned of potential challenges in implementation and enforcement. Few districts fulfilled the new requirements even after the passage of the California law, he said. Public Advocates tracked compliance and brought one district, the Oakland Unified School District, to court. After that, more districts began to report actual expenditures at individual schools.

But Mayer hopes that judicial proceedings will not be necessary at the federal level if the U.S. Department of Eduction takes an active role in enforcing any new regulations. Affeldt added that DOE must also step up to provide technical assistance for states that do not already have the capacity for these new requirements, and it will have to provide guidance for how to report shared expenditures such as custodial staff and summer programs.

Affeldt and Mayer’s proposal will provide data that will “tell us what we’re spending, dollar for dollar, in schools. That’s information that we should use to make a host of policy decisions,” said Ali. Determining exactly how to establish comparability within school districts will be complicated.

“It’s necessary to take steps to prevent people from reacting inappropriately” to data on inequity within school districts, said Miller. Personnel costs are 80 percent to 85 percent of a school district’s expenditures and one of the most important factors in determining student achievement, an apparently obvious way to achieve comparability would be to transfer teachers from school to school.

But Miller warned that it would be counterproductive to force teachers who are higher on the pay scale to transfer to schools with lower average teacher salaries. The current system in most districts gives more experienced teachers higher salaries, but that assumes those teachers are better teachers, which is not always the case, he said.

Ali agreed. When she was conducting research in California, superintendents would tell her things like, “My best teachers are my green teachers, and I need them in these struggling schools.” Establishing comparability will require more creative policy solutions beyond simply pushing teachers from one school to another.

“Whether or not the 50 plus million children in our schools are going to have a quality education depends not just on local school districts, but on this president, this administration, and this Congress,” as Fattah said in his opening remarks.

For more on this event, please see its event page

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