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Education Department to Demand School Pay Data

By Stephen Sawchuk — November 16, 2009 6 min read
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U.S. Department of Education officials plan to require districts receiving economic-stimulus aid to report school-level salaries—a sign, observers say, that the Obama administration might seek key changes to district accounting procedures for federal Title I funds.

The reporting—the first collection of its type undertaken by the federal government—could give a clearer picture about the extent to which district spending on salaries differs between schools that receive Title I dollars for disadvantaged students and those that do not.

The results of the data collection, which is to take place this winter, are likely to give more ammunition to school finance experts and lawmakers who maintain that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act should be changed to require districts to address such disparities before receiving the federal aid.

Because a majority of districts’ costs are tied up in salaries, the data have implications for the way teachers of different levels of pay and experience are distributed across districts.

Title I Tests

Districts must meet three financial criteria to receive Title I dollars for disadvantaged students under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. New federal reporting requirements on teachers’ salaries, however, hint at changes to the comparability rules.

Comparability of Services: Districts can receive Title I funds only if they provide a written assurance that state and local funds and services are comparable between Title I and non-Title I schools. Staff salary differentials are excluded from the calculation.

Maintenance of Effort: States must ensure that the combination of state and local per-pupil spending—or aggregate expenditures on education—for the previous financial year was at least 90 percent of such spending two years prior. The state must reduce the district’s Title I allocation in proportion to how much it misses that benchmark.

Supplement, Not Supplant: States and districts can use Title I funds only to supplement those that would be otherwise used from nonfederal sources for poor students, not to replace them.

SOURCE: No Child Left Behind Act

“We’ve never had a moment before when public officials have asked questions about these inequities,” said Marguerite J. Roza, a research associate professor at the University of Washington, in Seattle, who has studied the issue extensively. “Many districts swear that they don’t have them. But they haven’t looked.”

Teacher Distribution

A little-noticed provision in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act requires each district receiving Title I funds under the stimulus law to file with its state a school-by-school listing of per-pupil expenditures by December 2009.

Aside from a brief notice in the Federal Register, the Education Department has been silent about what information it would seek from districts to fulfill the requirement. But according to forms filed by the department with the White House Office of Management and Budget over the past two months, the Education Department indicated that it plans to require districts to report information on wages, including:

• Total salaries in each school;

• Salaries of instructional staff (such as paraprofessionals) only;

• Salaries of teachers only; and

• Nonpersonnel expenditures, if available.

The department would also request more detailed information from five states yet to be chosen. Those states would be asked to break down the expenditure information by state, local, and federal funding sources, including Title I, the documents indicate.

The heavy emphasis on teachers’ salaries stands in direct contrast to the way that districts currently account for them under the Title I program, which provides additional money to districts with high concentrations of poor students.

To receive the federal funding, districts must meet three financial requirements meant to prevent them from using the extra federal dollars to fill in gaps in state and local funding. Under the “comparability” provisions, districts must show that they provide equitable state and local resources to low- and high-poverty schools before receiving their Title I allocations.

But the current version of the ESEA allows districts to exclude salary differentials from the calculation. Instead, they can allocate money to schools based on the district’s average teacher pay as set out in the districtwide salary schedule.

Researchers such as Ms. Roza have found significant funding disparities between low- and high-poverty schools in the same district, largely as a result of differences in teacher salaries. She contends that the omission of salaries from the comparability language papers over factors, such as transfer rules in contracts and high turnover in low-income schools, that tend to lead to a concentration of lower-paid novice teachers in those schools.

In their documentation to the OMB, department officials wrote that the findings from the data collection could be used to help policymakers craft changes to the comparability provisions in the ESEA.

“This is the only way to truly measure whether resources around teacher salaries, curriculum, and technology are being equitably distributed to schools and classrooms,” said Charles Barone, the director of federal policy for Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based political action committee. “Districtwide figures obscure resource differences, which is the key reason why most districts refuse to publish school-by-school dollar figures.”

Raegen Miller, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank headed by a former Clinton White House official, praised the department’s efforts in the five states that would be chosen for the more detailed reporting, saying such scrutiny could intensify the focus on putting performance at the center of school policy.

“A lot of people think that some amount of budgetary discretion should reside in the hands of principals, that there should be some more flexibility about how teachers are compensated,” he said. “That depends on knowing how much money is flowing to the schools and whether outcomes are measured.”

But the documents show that state officials approached about the collection have expressed concerns about the burden and cost, as well as its feasibility.

“We also understand that districts may not have comprehensive data on school-level expenditures that they can report for a previous school year, but we believe that, at a minimum, they should be able to identify which staff were assigned to each school and to determine the salary expenditures for each school staff member,” Sandra Abrevaya, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said in an e-mail.

Closing ‘Loopholes’

Although the Obama administration has not made any public statements about the comparability language, several experts on the issue now work in the administration.

A former Center for American Progress analyst, Robert Gordon, and Russlynn Ali, a former vice president of the Education Trust West, an advocacy group, work, respectively, at the OMB and in the Education Department’s office for civil rights. Both pressed for changes to the Title I comparability provisions in their prior roles.

Such changes could, for instance, require districts to account for actual, rather than average, teacher salaries in determining whether state and local funds are distributed comparably to Title I schools.

Any such alterations would require congressional approval, and that could well be difficult.

When the House Education and Labor Committee, in 2007, issued a discussion draft of a bill to reauthorize the ESEA—currently the No Child Left Behind Act—that proposed accounting for actual teacher salaries, comparability became a surprise hot-button issue. (“Draft Proposal Seeks to Equalize School Resources,” Sept. 19, 2007.)

Teachers’ unions opposed the proposal, fearing it would cause districts to try to override contracts and transfer teachers forcibly to equalize salaries.

The National Conference of State Legislatures and the American Association of School Administrators argued that the change would interfere with state funding formulas and district budget flexibility.

But Ms. Roza contends that closing the comparability “loophole” would not necessarily require transferring teachers. Districts couldmake up for lower teacher salaries in high-poverty schools, she says, by spending more to hire instructional coaches for those schools, creating incentives for teachers to move to them, or reducing class sizes.

Neither the American Federation of Teachers nor the National Education Association returned requests seeking comment on the new data collection.

For their part, lawmakers are not likely to take up comparability before turning their attention again to the ESEA, which is overdue for reauthorization. But they still have their sights set on the provision.

“I think you have to [make changes],” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, when asked about comparability following a recent hearing on ensuring equitable access to teachers.

“We assume that there is equal funding across the district so that these [Title I] dollars go to schools impacted by heavy concentrations of poor and minority students,” he continued. “But if those resources are siphoned off, that purpose of federal law is not being met.”

Coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is supported in part by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org.
A version of this article appeared in the November 18, 2009 edition of Education Week as Ed. Agency to Demand School Pay Data

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