On ‘Comparability’ and Teacher Transfers

By Stephen Sawchuk — June 17, 2009 2 min read
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I’m told there was a bit of pushback on the concept of “comparability” in Title I schools at a recent New America Foundation event.

In short, Title I funds are supposed to provide additional services for disadvantaged students, so districts must ensure “comparability” of resources between their schools with low and high concentrations of poverty before the dollars flow. But the Elementary and Secondary Education Act basically lets districts exempt teachers’ salaries from this calculation. And since seniority provisions allow higher-paid, more experienced teachers to transfer to wealthier schools, there can literally be a difference of tens of thousands of dollars between more- and less-affluent schools in the district. The result, say groups like the Center for American Progress, the Education Trust, and now the New America Foundation, is that Title I has the effect of filling in holes rather than providing additional services for poor kids.

I don’t think anyone disagrees that this is a problem; the issue really centers on what would happen if lawmakers closed this loophole by requiring districts to account for teacher salaries when they perform the comparability calculation. Some groups, like the teachers’ unions, think it would make things worse. Districts would forceably transfer teachers to different schools to equal out the salaries, they argue.

Others, like the Education Trust say that the differential could be made up by giving the poor schools extra dollars to hire more teachers, supplement classes with coaches, or provide more materials, instead of transferring teachers. But I’m hearing that other experts find that suggestion a bit naive. The provision of materials and resources is typically done centrally, rather than at the school level, for instance. And offering incentives to get teachers to transfer could backfire if the unions don’t agree to those in contracts.

This may seem a bit far-off and wonky, but there are good reasons to think comparability is hot on the burner. For one, CAP’s John Podesta is said to be fairly tight with the administration. Former CAP policy analyst Robert Gordon, who headed up a lot of the shop’s work on comparability, is now at the White House. Mike Smith, over at the Education Department, also referenced the issue in a conversation I had with him about the equitable distribution of teachers.

And you can see the footprints in the recent stimulus legislation, which requires districts to report school-by-school expenditures of stimulus funds. (The Education Department was supposed to release additional guidance on this topic, but hasn’t done so...yet.)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.