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Advocates Say NCLB’s ‘Comparability’ Provision is in Need of Fine-Tuning

By David J. Hoff — June 17, 2008 5 min read
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When Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, it rewrote much of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, increasing the amount of testing required and demanding that states hold schools accountable for results on those tests.

Although the changes were intended to hold school officials accountable for the educational experiences of disadvantaged children, Congress left intact a short clause in the main K-12 education law that, in practice, has failed to ensure that money from the federal Title I program only supplements state and local money, researchers and advocates said at a conference here last week.

“Title I is not having its intended effect,” Marguerite Roza, a research associate professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, said at the one-day conference sponsored by the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank. “It’s filling in the holes left by state and local funds.”

Differences in School Spending

Researchers looking at a sample of California school districts have documented that the districts spend more on teacher salaries and other expenditures in low-poverty schools than in high-poverty schools.

BRIC ARCHIVE

Source: Center for American Progress

With Congress behind schedule in its work to renew the NCLB law, now most likely in 2009, advocates for poor and minority children are lobbying for lawmakers to change the ways school districts allocate $13.9 billion in Title I money among the schools in their systems.

The public would endorse federal efforts to provide extra aid to poorer schools and “would be surprised to find out that the school districts spread their [federal] money around right now,” said Ross Wiener, the vice president for programs and policy at the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that advocates for policies to improve the education of poor and minority students. “We should acknowledge that this means changing the deal.”

Salaries Not ‘Comparable’

In several research projects studying school district budgets, Ms. Roza has documented how districts establish policies that distribute funding among schools, with those serving middle-class and affluent children often receiving more state and local funds than schools serving the most disadvantaged populations. (“Study: District Budget Practices Can Siphon Title I Aid From Poor,” Aug. 31, 2005.)

In a paper she prepared for the June 10 conference at the Center for American Progress, she cited data from California schools showing that low-poverty schools had almost $800 per pupil to spend in their annual budgets. What’s more, the average teacher salary in the low-poverty schools was $57,242—almost $10,000 more than in high-poverty schools.

In tracking Title I money, Ms. Roza says that teacher salaries account for most of the disparity in funding between schools, and those differences undermine the NCLB law’s requirement that Title I schools receive shares of state and local money that are comparable to those that don’t qualify for the program.

The section of the NCLB law that defines comparability requires districts to allocate Title I money based on the average teacher salary in that district, rather than the actual total spent on salaries in each school, in determining whether a district gives Title I schools state and local funding that is comparable to non-Title I schools.

The law makes it easier for districts to qualify as having comparable funding. Even though they usually spend more than average for teacher salaries in low-poverty schools—which attract experienced teachers—and less in high-poverty schools, districts are allowed under the law to calculate comparability as if their salaries are the same. That misrepresents the money actually spent in the school, Ms. Roza said.

“It doesn’t make any sense to leave teacher salaries out of the equation,” said Mr. Wiener of the Education Trust, which is lobbying to remove the clause requiring the use of the average teacher salary from the NCLB law.

If Congress eliminated the salary rule, high-poverty schools would receive between 5 percent and 15 percent more money in total aid per year, Ms. Roza’s paper said, citing her 2005 research on Texas school funding.

No Easy Solution

Such a change would free up discretionary money for principals at Title I schools, Ms. Roza said. It also might draw experienced, and presumably more effective, teachers to such schools, she said.

But such changes wouldn’t guarantee that effective teachers would move to Title I schools, said Kate Walsh, the president of the National Center on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based nonprofit group that advocates for policies at all levels to increase the number of effective teachers.

Changing the comparability rules “is not going to change whether schools are more attractive to teachers,” Ms. Walsh said at the conference. Some experienced teachers would retire rather than accept an assignment to a school where they don’t want to teach, she said.

Even if the changes were made, they wouldn’t have dramatic effects in the urban districts that receive the largest grants under Title I, added F. Howard Nelson, the lead researcher for the American Federation of Teachers, the 1.3 million-member union.

In Chicago, three-quarters of schools have at least 82 percent of their students living in poverty, Mr. Nelson said. Changing the teacher-salary rules would not make a substantial difference in the quality or experience of teachers for students in poverty, Mr. Nelson said.

Changes Coming

Title I’s comparability rules have been in place since 1970, but Congress may be ready to change them, said Mr. Wiener.

Last summer, the House Education and Labor Committee issued a discussion draft of a bill to reauthorize the NCLB law that would have eliminated the requirement that districts rely on average teacher salaries in determining whether state and local funds are distributed comparably to Title I schools.

The reauthorization process stalled last year when Democrats and Republicans couldn’t reach a consensus on issues such as changing the law’s testing-and-accountability requirements and supporting local efforts to offer merit pay for teachers. Although Senate education leaders say they are intent on reauthorizing the law this year, most political observers predict that President Bush and the Democratic Congress are unlikely to reach an agreement on the law.

Once Congress does take up the law, Mr. Wiener predicts changing the comparability rules will be the subject of much debate.

“This is the first serious attempt to strengthen the comparability provisions in the law,” Mr. Wiener said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 18, 2008 edition of Education Week as Advocates Say NCLB’s ‘Comparability’ Provision Is in Need of Fine-Tuning

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