On ESEA Fiscal-Equity Proposal, Is AFT Hedging?

By Stephen Sawchuk — January 13, 2012 3 min read
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On one of the sleeper Elementary and Secondary Education Act issues—within-district fiscal equity—the American Federation of Teachers appears to be hedging its bets.

Quick catch-up for those new to the issue: Before districts can get their share of federal Title I dollars for disadvantaged kids, they have to certify that local spending between high- and low-poverty schools is comparable, which is why this whole issue is better known as “comparability.”

Under the current comparability calculation, districts are allowed to exempt teacher salary differentials. The problem is, however, that factors like high turnover in high-poverty schools result in a concentration of novice teachers in such schools—and therefore, less per-pupil funding overall. The resulting disparities can be quite large in dollar terms.

Efforts in 2007 to require districts to account for (and equalize) salary differentials didn’t make much of a dent. But the policy landscape has shifted considerably since then, for three reasons:

More data: The U.S. Department of Education has put out an analysis based on the first-ever national data collection of school-level expenditures (including salaries), showing that schools with lots of low-income students tend to get shortchanged on local funding.

New proposals: Civil rights groups have signed on to support a bill to close the “comparability loophole” in federal law, sponsored by Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., in the House and a companion bill by Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Thad Cochran, R-Miss., in the Senate. And a comparability fix was included in the ESEA bill that the Senate education committee recently cleared.

NEA Support: In what’s probably the most important signal of shifting winds of all, the National Education Association has signed on in support of revised comparability language. NEA’s support was, apparently, garnered by assurances that districts would be discouraged from transferring teachers to achieve comparable spending.

This leaves us with the important question: Where does the American Federation of Teachers stand on comparability nowadays?

The union’s basic take is that “it will take more than an accounting rule change” to make progress on equitable funding for students.

In an interview, AFT President Randi Weingarten said that within-district inequities are dwarfed by larger disparities, such as those among districts in the same state. Changing the Title I comparability rule could exacerbate “churn” among schools, as principals seek to balance the costs of their teaching forces, she contended.

“Think about this as Theraflu vs. prevention,” she said. “It’s like treating a symptom, rather than the long-term problems. When you simply try to mandate one technical fix, and try to force one thing instead of actually addressing the real issues, then you can have unintended consequences.”

Creating incentives and improving working conditions to keep senior, experienced teachers in low-income schools is a more promising strategy, she said.

So while the union hasn’t formally opposed the ESEA proposals on this issue, it has concerns about them.

It’s likely there are other factors at work here, too. Changes to the comparability rule seem likely to affect large, urban districts with lots of schools more than smaller or rural districts—in other words, the exact places where AFT’s teachers are located. And comparability raises questions about seniority-based staffing policies, which are still in place in lots of AFT districts.

To be fair to AFT, there’s a debate in the research community about how big of an issue intra-district disparities, like comparability, are vs. inter-district disparities, which are generally a function of school-finance formulas.

School-finance expert Bruce Baker writes that “improving within-district comparability of resources across schools is only a very small piece of a much larger equity puzzle. It’s a drop in the bucket,” and has some data to make his point.

On the other hand, analysts for the Center on American Progress suggest that the problems posed by within-district inequity vary quite a bit from place to place, depending on the size of the district.

Raegen Miller, a senior policy analyst, found that, in California, only 30 percent of the disparities in average teacher salary could be traced to inequities within districts in funding. But in Florida, nearly half these disparities were within-district ones. This may be related to California’s proliferation of small districts and Florida’s large, county-wide districts, he told me.

All that said, AFT still has a bit of a decision to make on this issue. After all, if one of these federal bills begins to move, the union’s choice will become clear: whether to throw its weight behind a comparability fix—or not.

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