The Obama administration is trying to end a longstanding bit of systemic inequity in the public schools, but his officials are facing the stiff arm from an unlikely team: Republicans and their new allies, teachers unions. At issue: There's a loophole in federal Title I law that allows districts to smuggle more dollars into wealthier schools using teacher salaries as the mule. The problem: They can get away with it because the issue is far too complex for political civilians to understand easily, and that leaves a lot of room to exploit public ignorance. Actually, the bigger problem is that millions of poor students, and students of color, are shortchanged by the formula for how districts spend their resources on a per pupil basis. Teacher salaries and benefits are the largest expenditure for school districts, but how students are charged for their teachers significantly favors more advantaged students. That has serious implications for student achievement, which, of course, has an impact on life outcomes.
Simplifying the Problem
For years I’ve struggled to explain the problem simply. It’s not easy. Here’s one attempt: Imagine you go into a bakery to buy a cake and the baker charges $15 for it. A few minutes later another customer comes in to buy the same cake but is only charged $5. When you complain about the price difference the baker tells you “these cakes are more expensive for poor Black people than rich White people.” You would probably sue or make a fuss. Charging people different prices—for the same services—on the basis of race or class is wrong. You’ve just experienced the way public schools and students are charged for their teachers.
Kicking Equity to the Side
Federal law requires school districts receiving Title I dollars to demonstrate that they are providing “comparable” education services between high-poverty and low-poverty schools. That is supposed to make public school funding equal, at least in terms of resourcing students at the school level, but there is one yawning loophole: what a district charges schools for teacher positions is done wholly without regard for equity. How? A poor school with 10 teachers earning an annual salary of $40,000 pays the same cost for those 10 teachers as a richer, Whiter school pays for its teachers who earn $80,000. The school sites pay an “average teacher salary” rather than the actual teacher salary. That’s a great deal for the wealthier school. Not so for the poorer school. Unions defend the practice because teachers cherish their contractual rights around bidding, transferring or being assigned to schools based on hard-earned seniority systems. It’s a professional right to “shop” for schools with more desirable student populations (read: White and less challenging) as they gain years of experience and become more expensive to their school districts. It’s sad, but this is one intersection when unions prioritize the personal interests of their members over the critical interests of disadvantaged communities. When Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), testified before Congress on the issue she defended the status quo. It put her and the AFT shoulder to shoulder with Republicans, indifferent to equity, and out of stride with civil rights groups who have called out the unfairness of the equity loophole. That should call into question all of the racial theater the AFT participates in, and all of their cleverly worded press statements saying they “stand in solidarity” with communities of color. When the rubber hits the road they stand with their mostly White workforce, and the Republicans who have recently taken up their cause.
Getting Away With Highway Robbery
For teachers unions and Republicans, their members and constituents, fighting Obama on closing the equity loophole in Title I is a win/win. For the record, it’s not a morally sound one. For poor students who are more likely to be taught by early career, less-expensive teachers, it’s highway robbery and the very definition of institutional racism. If we really care about equity then we have to be transparent, fair and sincere about how we fund our schools. It’s not enough to constantly demand more money if we’re already showing bad faith in how we spend it. We need lawmakers, school officials and public workers to demonstrate a much higher degree of integrity. Yes, the issue is complex and easy to cynically
exploit. But, we expect leaders to do the right thing even when no one is watching. Our kids deserve that much. Sen. Michael Bennett gave a good overview of the need to close the equity loophole in Title I. See it below:
Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of
brightbeam. He was named CEO in April 2019, after formerly serving as chief executive of Wayfinder Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. In the past, Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, ...