Senate education bill would add more fairness to poorer school funding

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011 at 6:17 pm

Today during the markup process to overhaul the main education law of the land, No Child Left Behind, senators on the HELP Committee managed to discuss a little-known but crucial tweak to how poor and rich school districts share education funding.

Known as “comparability of services,” it forces states and districts that receive Title 1 funding — federal money meant to bolster schools with high percentages of low-income students — to spend a near equal amount on poor and affluent schools. Lawmakers are taking up the issue since Title 1 funding totals roughly $14.5 billion, meaning how states demonstrate their compliance with the provision matters a great deal financially.

The guidelines are complicated but over the years school districts have perfected tactics that allow them to get away with providing more funding to wealthy schools than high-poverty schools. The resultant discrepancy leaves the United States as one of three countries in the wealthy group of nations called OECD that spends more on wealthier schools than poor ones.

“We can no longer allow children’s Zip codes to determine the quality of their education, wrote HELP committee member Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) to the American Independent. “We need to ensure that our sparse federal dollars actually go to the disadvantaged children they were intended to serve, while also encouraging more equitable spending locally among schools.”

To that end, the bill to replace NCLB — co-written by HELP committee chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) — would greatly improve the equitability of school spending. If passed, it would close a loophole that inaccurately represents how much funding poor schools receive, much to their financial detriment.

Under NCLB, districts display compliance with equal school spending by reporting the average salary amount teachers receive. However, that tactic obscures the funding disparity between poorer and  wealthier schools: salaries at more affluent campuses are significantly higher since they attract more experienced instructors, and can do so since wealthier communities have more tax revenue to spend on education.

Moreover, teacher compensation makes up roughly 80 percent of school funding, and wealthier schools have more teachers to achieve smaller class sizes. The Harkin-Enzi bill would eliminate that method of reporting funding. Doing so, according to a GAO report, would mean augmenting the habits of 80 percent of surveyed schools.

A fairer way, analysts say and what the Harkin-Enzi bill is striving to achieve, is basing the reporting on spending per pupil.

Funding discrepancies are made much more explicit when teacher salaries aren’t assumed to be equal, and districts must then shore up the difference by sending more dollars to poorer schools.

“Closing the comparability loophole is a good thing. For the first time, policymakers and the public will have transparent reporting of funding disparities between schools,” says Anne Hyslop, an education analysts at Education Sector. “Most importantly, it’s good for low-income kids, who are more likely today to be taught by inexperienced teachers.”

One aspect of the spending gap not addressed by the Harkin-Enzi bill is how similarity is defined. Earlier in the year, Sen. Bennet wrote a comparability spending bill with Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) that would allow no more than a 3 percent difference in funds allotted to poor and wealthy schools. The current standard is 10 percent.

School districts that have adopted the new reporting measures witnessed a jump in the amount of dollars poorer schools received. In Oakland, funding for low-income elementary schools increased 24 percent. The increased flexibility allowed principals to expand learning time in the classroom and add more teachers–techniques studies show improves student learning.

Some education stakeholders worry the new education bill would force schools to ship teachers to poorer districts to satisfy the comparability rule. During the hearing today, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) had an amendment approved by the committee that assuaged those fears.

“It clarified that school districts don’t have to force teachers to transfer between schools to equalize funding between higher and lower income schools,” said Alexandra Fetissoff, spokesperson for Sen. Franken.

Though esoteric, the amendment was important since it keeps the onus on local authorities to find ways of incentivizing highly trained teachers of accepting jobs at low-income schools, an imperative set forth by lawmakers from both sides of the aisle who don’t the new federal education law to seem too invasive.

Also, the proposed bill doesn’t change the formula for how schools receive Title 1 funding. Currently, the majority of funding is based on a simple calculation of whether the student population has at two percent of its population qualified as low-income.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was swept into law under the Johnson administration in 1965. It outlines a wide array of funding procedures and the federal government’s role in local K-12 education. No Child Left Behind is the current iteration of that law and has been due for an overhaul since 2007. As its rules have placed burdensome expectations on local school administrators and labeled close to half of the schools in the country as failing, both sides of the aisle have called for its replacement.

To relieve states of NCLB’s punitive sting, The White House has offered states a quid pro quo arrangement to opt out of the law in exchange for increased accountability and oversight standards valued by the administration.

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