Ensuring Equal Opportunity in Public Education

How Local School District Funding Practices Hurt Disadvantaged Students and What Federal Policy Can Do About It

Overview: Rethinking Local School District Funding Practices

Schools receive funding from federal, state, and local district sources. However, the current local funding allocation strategy has resulted in a widening education gap that disadvantages poor and minority students. In conjunction with the release of their report, “Ensuring Equal Opportunity in Public Education: How Local School District Funding Practices Hurt Disadvantaged Students and What Federal Policy Can Do About It,” the Center for American Progress hosted an event this week exploring the restoration of fiscal equity to disadvantaged schools. CAP President and CEO John Podesta opened the conference by introducing Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA), who delivered a keynote address. The three panels that followed featured educational experts with differing views on appropriate budgeting strategies and policy changes.

The first panel discussed inherent problems with local school district funding practices, and how federal policy changes may help. The panelists focused on the currently ineffective comparability provision in Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, now known as the No Child Left Behind Act. The comparability provision is designed to ensure that federal funds are added to an already-level playing field of state and local funding for schools. Unfortunately, the provision contains a loophole that makes it ineffective in mandating fiscal equality between schools within a district, and even the flawed provision has been inconsistently enforced.

Participants in the second panel debated whether a revised federal fiscal comparability policy that was enforced would result in positive changes for high-poverty schools. The final panel explored some current attempts by local districts to move toward greater fiscal equity, including a budgeting change implemented in Oakland Unified School District. Although the event did not conclude with one policy recommendation from all panelists, it exposed significant issues with the current financial allocation approaches in local school districts and proposed several potential approaches that may reduce some of the inequalities between low- and high-poverty schools in this country.


Panel 1: Inequality in Education

Inequality in the funding of local schools by their own school districts is a serious issue nationwide. Some scholars argue that federal education funding requirements under Title I exacerbate existing inequalities in education at the local level by allowing districts to continue unequal funding practices. The current system allows great disparities in actual dollar amounts budgeted to various schools, with high-poverty schools often receiving fewer dollars than low-poverty schools within the same district.

Cynthia Brown, Center for American Progress Director of Education Policy, moderated the first panel, “Overview and History of the Comparability Provision.” The panelists included Dr. Marguerite Roza, a Research Associate Professor at the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington; Education Trust Vice President Ross Wiener; and Consultant and long-time Title I Historian Phyllis McClure. In the first of three panels, the discussants commented on the history of the comparability provision, how school districts allocate funds to schools, and potential policy changes for making the comparability provision more effective.

Although some policymakers outside the field of education may consider this issue overly technical or esoteric, Roza cautioned the audience against this belief: Ultimately, she claims that this issue is about providing equitable services to disadvantaged students. “When teachers at one school in a high-poverty neighborhood were paid an average of $38,718, at another school in the same district, the average teacher’s salary was $57,000,” she said. Unfortunately, students in high-poverty schools are disproportionately served by low-paid teachers, making the actual per-pupil-expenditures much lower in those schools.

McClure said that comparability is the only provision of federal law that currently operates to “prevent and correct intra-district inequities in school spending.” While the panelists all agreed that comparability cannot fix the problems of wealthier districts having more resources than poorer ones, they did agree it was a step in the right direction for fiscal equity within single districts.

Wiener added that comparability could also bolster the autonomy of principals, allowing them to make purposeful decisions about funding: “A school should not be penalized [financially] because the principal insists that half of her faculty be novice, lower-paid teachers from Teach for America, in place of the former instructors with higher seniority.” If a more sensible Title I comparability provision was enacted, local school districts would have to change the way they allocate funds to their schools, which over time could ensure a more fair and equitable local educational funding process. “Solving comparability is necessary but not sufficient,” he argued. However, without comparability, Wiener warns that America can no longer continue the rhetoric that we are committed to closing the achievement gap and committed to equal educational opportunity in this country.


Panel 2: Opinions Diverge on Closing the Comparability Loophole


“This is the panel where you have some divergent opinions, I think. And they’re very evident,” Dalia Pompa told the audience at the Center for American Progress on Tuesday. Pompa, the Vice President for Education at the National Council of La Raza, moderated the second panel of the daylong conference.

The panel also included Dr. F. Howard Nelson, Lead Researcher in the Office of the President of the American Federation of Teachers; Dr. Marguerite Roza, from the Center on Reinventing Public Education; and Kate Walsh, the President of the National Council on Teacher Quality.

The panel, “Closing the Comparability Loophole: Potential and Pitfalls,” examined the potential positive results and consequences that may occur with federal enforcement of a revised comparability provision in Title I. Currently, the comparability provision allows school districts to report their budgets using average teachers’ salaries for the entire district, instead of basing budgets on actual teachers’ salaries at specific schools. Some scholars, including Roza, argue that this allows schools to earmark significantly more money for schools with higher-paid teachers.

Roza argued that comparability provisions are necessary to ensure that the integrity of federal funding is maintained. Title I is designed to supplement local funding, by providing additional dollars for students in particularly high-poverty areas. Without equity in the per-pupil amounts of local and state funds for Title I and non-Title I schools before allocating federal dollars to low-income schools, Title I funds end up replacing local funds rather than supplementing them. This does little to aid high-needs students. “There is this offsetting problem that happens every time you layer in new funds,” Roza explained.

Roza also said that complex data reporting obscures spending distribution, complicates education reforms, and masks inequities between schools. To remedy this, she argued that “comparability needs to happen in terms of dollars,” and that data reporting should be simplified to allow easy comparisons between schools.

Ultimately, the panelists agreed that schools should do their best to ensure equity in services and opportunity, but disagreed about whether comparability in terms of real dollars is a necessary step in achieving this goal. Walsh disagreed with Roza’s suggestion of evaluating comparability in dollars; she fears that using actual salary in funding estimates would implicitly equate a teacher’s value with his or her salary. Walsh argued that salaries based on seniority do not accurately measure teacher quality, and that comparability measures based on dollars spent would do a poor job of assigning the best teachers to the neediest students.

Additionally, Walsh argued that comparability “presumes somewhat of a fixed definition for a ‘poor school,’” and mistakenly assumes that principals and school districts have more control over budgets than they actually do. “Comparability is taking on a symptom of the problem, but it’s not taking on the problem, which is a lack of leadership at [lower-income] schools,” she said.

Nelson sought to put the debate in context, noting that, “the inequalities between schools within a district are dwarfed by inequalities between districts […and] low-poverty schools in a poor district would be considered high-poverty in a wealthier district.” He warned against taking a simplistic view of comparability, saying “it has to be surgical—school by school […] you can’t just correlate it to the poverty level.”

Nelson also noted that, despite differences on the panel, “we’re a lot closer than you may think, and that may have something to do with the fact that teachers, administrators and policymakers are really focusing on this [issues of fiscal equity and equal opportunity].”


Panel 3: Real-World Efforts to Overcome the Educational Equity Gap


“How do we ensure that all children succeed in life?” said Matt Hill, the Executive Officer of Strategic Projects in the Oakland Unified School District. “That’s at the heart of it.” Hill was a member of the third panel, entitled “How to Do it Right: Resources and Assistance for States and Districts.” Moderated by Robert Gordon, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, the other speakers were Dr. Susan Sclafani, Managing Director of the Chartwell Education Group, and Warren Simmons, Executive Director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

The panel focused on resources and assistance for school districts as they move toward funding all of their schools equally. The discussants explored different styles of funding allocation, relying heavily on panelists’ experience working with urban school districts like Oakland and Houston. Oakland Unified School District’s transition to a Results-Based Budget was particularly noteworthy, because it uses actual site-by-site expenditures to develop budgets. Hill explained the goals and phases of this new budgeting system and stressed equity, transparency, accountability, and autonomy as important components of its success.

Hill argued that schools need freedom to allocate money where it is most needed, according to principal discretion. He believes that transparency would help monitor this spending and would refute the common concern regarding detrimental effects on veteran teachers’ security. When phasing in a Results-Based Budget, he explained, it is important to show “on a school by school basis, this is how we spend the money.”

The success of Oakland Unified is hard to refute: It is the most academically improved large urban district in California over the last three years.

Sclafani, who explored a similar 7-year program in Houston, stressed how damaging it can be without school board support; this problem destroyed the progress in her district. “I would say school board courage is one of the critical issues in the comparability issue,” she said.

She agreed with Hill that improved data systems and accountability for schools were important and added that PTAs in more affluent schools are likely to raise funds for services that might be cut back under new comparability requirements. Sclafani ended her speech by calling for a higher quality of instruction that could be achieved by proper funding for teachers.

Similar to the message of other panelists throughout the day, Simmons warned against limiting reform to budget and finances, as fiscal resources are merely part of a broader issue. “[It’s] the tip of the equity iceberg,” he said.

He worried that focusing only on salaries and revenues would distract from other equally important problems in equity within urban school districts. Simmons explained that avoiding a “veneer of comparability” was essential when making changes within the district.

Gordon concluded the panel by asserting that lack of control by individual schools can limit the effectiveness of comparability and Results-Based Budgets. In the question-and-answer session that followed the panel discussion, it became clear that although the speakers differed in their opinions on comparability, they all agreed on one central principle: helping all children succeed, regardless of their income level.

Welcome and Introduction:

John Podesta, President and CEO, Center for American Progress

Opening Address:

Congressman Xavier Becerra, (D-CA)

Panel I: Overview and History of the Comparability Provision

Phyllis McClure, Consultant and long-time Title I historian
Marguerite Roza, Research Associate Professor, Center on Reinventing Public Education, University of Washington
Ross Wiener, Vice President, Education Trust

Moderated By:
Cynthia Brown, Director of Education Policy, Center for American Progress

Panel II: Closing the Comparability Loophole: Potential and Pitfalls

F. Howard Nelson, Lead Researcher, Office of the President, American Federation of Teachers
Marguerite Roza, Research Associate Professor, Center on Reinventing Public Education, University of Washington
Kate Walsh, President, National Council on Teacher Quality

Moderated By:
Delia Pompa, Vice President, Education, National Council of La Raza

Panel III: How to Do it Right: Resources and Assistance for States and Districts

Matt Hill, Executive Officer of Strategic Projects, Oakland Unified School District
Susan Sclafani, Managing Director, Chartwell Education Group
Warren Simmons, Executive Director, Annenberg Institute for School Reform

Moderated By:
Robert Gordon, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress (formerly of New York City Public Schools)


Center for American Progress, 1333 H St. NW, 10th Floor, Washington, DC , 20005

Additional information

Breakfast will be served at 8:30 a.m., and lunch will be served at 12:45 p.m.