School Districts Shortchange Low-Income Schools: Report

Inequity In America's Schools, By The Numbers

It's been long suspected that schools serving low-income students receive less money to pay their teachers than those in nearby affluent schools. Now there's data from the U.S. Department of Education to back that claim up.

"The facts are out there like they've never been before," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said on a conference call with reporters Wednesday.

And the spending disparity affects teacher quality: As veteran teachers move to more affluent schools that can pay them more, students in poorer schools are more frequently taught by unseasoned teachers with little classroom experience.

In the the 13,000 districts surveyed, which encompass 82,000 of the nation's 100,000 schools, more state and local money went to teacher salaries in high-income schools than in the district schools serving poor children, according to the new data. And 40 percent of low-income schools spent less on school employees in the 2008-2009 school year than other well-off schools within their districts.

"Low-income students need extra support and resources to succeed, but in far too many places, policies for assigning teachers and allocating resources are perpetuating the problem rather than solving it," Duncan said.

According to the report, between 18 and 28 percent of low-income schools aren’t adequately staffed to meet their students' needs. The report, titled "Comparability of State and Local Expenditures Among Schools Within Districts," used data collected from 13,000 school districts that had to self-report information on how they spend money to receive 2009 stimulus dollars.

The report attributes the gap to a loophole in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the sweeping federal law on public education passed in 1965. That law created a special class of schools known as Title I that explicitly serve poorer students. The law aimed to ensure that those schools were appropriately funded.

But a loophole in the law's reporting system that aimed to prevent school districts from using Title I dollars to plug overall budget gaps has allowed them to do just that. The law "often results in low-income schools subsidizing their high-income counterparts," Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), the former Denver schools superintendent, said in a Wednesday statement.

"Too many disadvantaged children living below the poverty line are getting short-changed now," Duncan said. Duncan called attention to a legislative fix his department proposed that's included in a stalled draft of the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind Act
sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa)

Though Duncan highlighted the glaring disparities Wednesday, his administration has so far prioritized other issues -- such as standards and innovation -- over funding equity.

Duncan has criticized Congress's standstill on reauthorizing No Child Left Behind, and has tried topush his own reforms in the interim by offering states waivers exempting them from NCLB requirements if they adopt certain plans. But the waivers don't primarily target the funding concerns highlighted in Wednesday's report.

When asked why he didn’t use the waiver procedure to enforce equitable spending, Duncan said, "these districts are technically in compliance with the law." What differs in this case, he added, is that the law itself is the problem. "We don't think there's a great mechanism" for fixing it in the waivers, he said.

But Dianne Piche, a former Education Department official who now heads the education arm of the U.S.-based Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said the federal government could enforce equity through other means.

"Their legal conclusion is that they can't alter a comparability loophole through waivers, but there is already a counterweight to that loophole in the law," Piche said. She suggested the Education Department "aggressively enforce" an existing NCLB provision that requires nondiscrimination in the rights and benefits of public schools on the basis of race and ethnicity; and another that requires the equitable distribution of teachers based on income.

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