Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Low-Income Kids Lose

Despite the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that required education be “made available to all on equal terms,” low-income students at each Title I school receive an average of $668,900 less per year than comparison schools, according to a report from Center for American Progress (CAP). This amounts to a total of $8.5 billion per year. In some districts, like Fort Worth, Texas, this disparity is as much as $2,600 per student. Because of persistent educational disparities, Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) requires school districts to provide “comparable” educational services and resources to high-poverty (Title I) and low-poverty (non-Title I) schools in order to receive funds for those high-poverty schools. To be eligible for Title I money, a district must show that it has done its part to comparably fund all schools with state and local dollars so that Title I funds provide additional support to schools with high concentrations of low-income students. Sound good so far? Unfortunately, there’s a loophole in the law that enables less needy schools to receive more money than their poorer counterparts. CAP states in its report:
But the devil, as always, is in the details. Under current law, districts can compute comparability using average teacher salaries or teacher-to-student ratios instead of actual expenditures on teacher salaries. And because teacher salaries constitute the largest proportion of school budgets and teachers with greater experience earn higher salaries and tend to teach in lower-poverty schools, this compliance method renders it impossible to accurately compare school budgets.
CAP provides a simplified (and fun, for Friday Night Lights fans) hypothetical to illustrate this problem. The report also includes state-by-state comparability analyses. Screen Shot 2015-03-12 at 4.02.58 PM In this example, using average school salaries ($65,000 vs. $45,000) uncovers the real resource disparities between these two schools that using an average district salary would mask. Yet despite the vast differences in total expenditures and per-pupil expenditures (West Dillon school is receiving $440,000 more actual local and state resources even though it’s a lower poverty school than East Dillon), these two schools are seen as comparable under the current law. Instead of the current comparability calculation, CAP recommends making the calculation based on actual expenditures, including actual teacher salaries. CAP also makes two other recommendations for closing the comparability gap:
  • Districts should be required to achieve comparability between Title I and non-Title I schools only by demonstrating that Title I schools receive state and local funding that is at least equal to the average of the district’s non-Title I schools.
  • Districts that serve only Title I schools must show that higher-poverty schools receive no less than the average total of state and local funds for lower-poverty schools.
By closing the comparability gap, states and districts would be able to provide far more resources to high-poverty schools. These resources could be used to provide additional counselors, coaches, after-school programs and more, or districts could restructure their salary schedules to prioritize effectiveness, allowing them to reward their most-effective teachers. If Congress takes this opportunity to restructure Title I funding (using CAP’s tiered, five-year system) and close the comparability loophole, it can take an important step toward ensuring low-income students get their share of local and state funding. And in case you are wondering where the hypothetical example of East and West Dillon came from, watch this clip from Friday Night Lights.
Valentina Payne
Valentina Payne joined Bellwether Education Partners in 2021 as chief of staff to Andy Rotherham on the External Relations team. Prior to Bellwether, she spent seven years at brightbeam, where she most recently served as its chief growth officer, overseeing operations, finance, fundraising, and strategic growth of the organization.

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