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Salary Totals Found Lower in Poor Schools

By Jeff Archer — February 15, 2005 4 min read
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Despite the belief that high-poverty schools should receive the most resources, many districts spend less, on average, on the teachers at such schools than they do at schools serving more affluent populations.

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Table: Exploring the Salary Gap

The reason, a statewide analysis of California data shows, is that high-poverty schools tend to have teachers with fewer years of experience, who are paid lower salaries than more veteran educators.

Slated for release this week, the study by the Oakland-based Education Trust-West found that 40 of California’s 50 largest districts spend the least for the teachers in schools with the most students in poverty.

On average, that gap is $2,396 per teacher between the highest- and lowest-poverty schools.

“Shortchanging Poor and Minority Schools: California’s Hidden Teacher Spending Gap” is available online from The Education Trust—West.

Russlynn Ali, the group’s director, said the findings reveal a troubling inequity that rarely gets attention. The cumulative result, over 12 or 13 years of public education, would mean spending some $100,000 less on a student attending high-poverty schools than on a student enrolled in schools with fewer poor children.

“If we are serious about educating all children to high standards, then somebody has to take responsibility for challenging this,” said Ms. Ali, whose group is affiliated with the Washington-based Education Trust, a research and advocacy organization that promotes high academic achievement for disadvantaged students. “We have to level the playing field when it comes to teachers.”

Some Buck the Trend

The researchers combined figures on the experience and education levels of teachers in California schools with information from districts on how much they pay teachers for those qualifications.

The gaps in spending identified are between the most and least impoverished quarter of schools in each district, in terms of the number of students from low-income families.

Based on those calculations, the 60,000-student San Francisco Unified district was found to spend an average of $2,363 less per teacher at its highest-poverty elementary schools than at its lowest-poverty ones.

In the 140,000-student San Diego system, the gap at the elementary level was $3,909. In the 57,000-student San Bernardino system, it was $5,760.

A few places bucked the trend, however. The study found that in the 720,000-student Los Angeles Unified district, spending for teachers was highest in the schools serving the most children living in poverty.

Ms. Ali said that Los Angeles’ showing was no accident.

“They are going to great lengths to make sure that students in their high-poverty schools have some of the most expensive, and what we believe are the most qualified teachers,” she said of the district.

But on another measure, even Los Angeles came up short. When researchers looked for gaps in spending between schools based just on their percentages of minority students, nearly all of the 10 largest districts in California were shown spending less for the teachers in schools with the largest proportions of minority students.

In other words, the inequity in spending was more prevalent when looked at by race than by student poverty.

The reasons that districts spend less on the teachers at high-poverty schools are no secret: Schools that have the hardest time recruiting and retaining experienced teachers are left with more of those at the bottom of their districts’ pay scales.

But what often isn’t acknowledged, say the authors of the report, is the true cost of that pattern. Districts rarely report school-by-school budgets that show the actual amount paid to the teachers in each building.

Education Trust-West recommends that state policymakers require districts to do so.

“Many principals didn’t realize this inequity was happening,” Ms. Ali said. “They knew they had less experienced teachers, but they didn’t realize how great the disparity was.”

Illustrating the point, the report shows the consequence of the $6,806-per-teacher gap found between a high- and a low-poverty school in San Diego. If the high-poverty school spent as much on its 66 teachers the other school did, its budget would grow by $450,000, it said.

Oakland Addresses Issue

One California district has sought to tip the scales the other way.

This school year, the 43,000-student Oakland Unified system established a new process in which the actual amount of staff salaries counts against each school’s budget. So schools with less experienced, less expensive teachers can stretch their budgets further because less is consumed by salaries. (“Actual Cost of Salaries Figures Into Budgets for Oakland’s Schools,” Jan. 5, 2005.)

“Because 80 percent of a school’s budget goes into personnel, we felt that this would have the most impact on equity of resources,” said Randolph E. Ward, the administrator who oversees the state-run district.

Marguerite Roza, a school finance expert at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington in Seattle, said the report points up a national problem.

Districts have traditionally thought in terms of the number of teachers they give to each school, not how much those teachers cost. The upshot, she said, is that less is spent on the schools that need the most resources.

“It just flies so counter to every district’s strategic statement,” she said.

Given the unequal resources, she asked: “How could we expect that there would be anything else but an achievement gap?”

A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2005 edition of Education Week as Salary Totals Found Lower in Poor Schools

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