Some Dollars Are More Equal Than Others

I think you can boil the fundamental injustice in American education down to this: Schools that need more usually get less. Schools that serve predominantly low-income students—who arrive with the same potential compared to their more affluent peers, but generally face a steeper academic climb—confront daunting inequities in facilities, teacher quality, course access, and especially funding.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (known today as the Every Student Succeeds Act) is designed to help narrow this gap. For a half century and counting, Title I of ESEA has distributed billions of dollars a year to schools with high concentrations of low-income students. School systems are only eligible for a Title I boost if they provide “comparable” baseline funding to all their schools, and they can’t use Title I money to replace any local funding. The idea is that all schools start with roughly the same amount of per-student funding, and Title I provides extra to schools in the neediest communities.

But here’s the dirty little secret of school funding: It doesn’t actually work this way. That’s because teacher salaries and benefits—which typically account for the large majority of school budgets—are exempt from the “comparability” test. And since schools in more affluent neighborhoods are more likely to have experienced teachers who earn higher salaries, it’s common for these schools to end up with budgets tens of thousands of dollars bigger than those of high-poverty schools in the same district—even after Title I funding is distributed.

Those tens of thousands of dollars represent real lost opportunities for students: a reading coach to support literacy teachers, or a social worker, or a chess club and music teacher so kids get the enrichment they want and deserve.

This hidden spending gap clearly violates the spirit of Title I, yet it has persisted for 50 years. It’s not for lack of a policy solution: The Education Department (ED) recently proposed a rule that would require high-poverty schools to receive an equal share of all state and local funding, including money earmarked for teacher compensation, as a precondition to receiving Title I funds. No, this is largely a political problem. In the short run, the only way to close the local funding gap is for states and cities to redistribute money from low-poverty schools to high-poverty schools. It’s a move that will spark opposition from relatively affluent communities that traditionally wield outsized political influence.

As a result, ED’s proposal to close the so-called comparability loophole is facing powerful opposition from both sides of the aisle. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee, sees the proposed rule as federal intrusion into the operations of local school districts. On the opposite end of the political spectrum, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten chided ED for wanting a “dollar for dollar” comparison between schools (as if “dollar for dollar” was an abstruse government test rather than simple math). Randi explained she was only in favor of “leveling up” school funding at high-poverty schools, not “leveling down” funding at low-poverty schools.

Almost all the critics, of course, profess to be for the spirit of ED’s proposal to level the playing field. But a requirement to move money from one school to another? That’s off limits.

These are understandable concerns. It would be irresponsible to force changes in school funding that would hurt kids at schools in affluent communities or anywhere else. There’s also a legitimate debate to be had about how far the federal government should go in mandating any particular fix. But we’ve spent decades letting the political difficulty of this problem prevent us from actually trying to find solutions.

There are practical paths toward funding equity that could avoid the doomsday scenarios that surround this debate. For example, school districts could phase in budget adjustments by providing funding for replacement teachers at the district average salary when veteran teachers (who earn higher salaries) retire. This would give principals at low-poverty schools time to plan and prepare for the changes—by investing in talented teachers who may be more junior, reconfiguring the way classrooms are organized, reducing spending on administrators, or even asking parents to raise money to fund enrichment activities.

And if states and districts can find ways, now or in the long run, to provide new funding to high-poverty schools, they should absolutely do it. In particular, local governments should end their reliance on property tax revenue as the main source of school funding—a system that reinforces gross inequities rooted in years of discriminatory economic and housing policy.

I don’t underestimate how difficult this process will be. But the upside-down nature of the status quo should offend everyone’s sense of fairness. Personally, I hope the push toward equity does come from ED—if not through a prescriptive mandate, then at least a forceful nudge. After all, the federal government has long served as the watchdog for equity in our education system. But even if ED doesn’t act this year, states and districts should tackle this issue themselves. If they don’t like the solution that’s on the table, let them prove they’ll make bold choices for underserved kids without pressure from Washington.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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