Urban school districts spend significantly less per pupil on their high-poverty schools than their low-poverty ones, a fact that is routinely masked by school budgets that use average-salary figures rather than actual ones, a new paper suggests.
The usually invisible budget gaps stem from differences in faculty salaries, which tend to be lower for schools with more low-performing students and more students from low-income families.
The study, which is scheduled to be published next year, “shows how an often-discussed phenomenon—that schools serving poor children get less qualified teachers than schools in the same district serving more advantaged children—is hard-wired into district policy” through widespread budgeting practices, researchers Marguerite Roza and Paul T. Hill write.
Ms. Roza and Mr. Hill of the University of Washington’s Center for Reinventing Education, in Seattle, presented their findings here last week at an annual education conference of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
The researchers looked at annual spending on schools from a recent year in each of four districts—Baltimore, Baltimore County, Cincinnati, and Seattle. Rather than rely on published budgets, which district officials compile using salary averages, the researchers derived their allocation figures from actual pay.
Because teacher qualifications are not spread evenly throughout a district, the total cost of the faculty at some schools is markedly higher than at others. For instance, in Maryland’s Baltimore County, outside the city of Baltimore, the average teacher salary ranges from about $41,000 for a school at the bottom of the distribution to $60,000 for a school at the top, the authors found.
The least-favored school in that district “effectively loses” as much as 18 percent, or about $470,000, as a result of salary averaging. The most-favored stands to gain as much as 17 percent, or about $400,000. Those figures are for the budget year examined, 2001-02.
Low Spending, Low Performance
Such a difference not only raises questions of equity on its face, the authors say, but also reflects the dimmer chances students at the less-favored schools have to achieve. A higher average salary at a particular school generally means that the teachers there were selected from a larger number of applicants than at a school with a lower average salary, yielding a more capable faculty.
The disadvantage is then compounded, the authors reasoned, when the schools that are saving money on teacher pay for the district do not receive it back. If they did, the money might be used, say, to beef up professional development or add technology.
Ms. Roza said in the presentation here that districts seem all-too-blissfully ignorant of the problem. In calling 20 districts at the beginning of the study, she said, she was told in every instance both that the district practiced salary averaging and that it made very little difference in spending, because teacher qualifications were evenly spread among the district’s schools.
The authors acknowledged that salary averaging and the disparities they believe it helps perpetuate will not be easy to change. As a first step, they urged districts to make resource allocation “transparent,” tracking real-dollar spending using real teacher salaries.
Officials and the public, they said, could then discourage the spending “distortions” that come to light as a result, such as the wide choice among teacher applicants enjoyed by some schools partially at the expense of others.
“Clearly, this analysis [and transparent budgeting] take you only so far,” Mr. Hill conceded. “But it enables the next move to real-spending decisions at the schools.”
In a follow-up discussion of the paper, Susan Sclafani, an aide to U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige and a former chief of staff in the Houston school district, underscored with a cautionary tale the point that formidable political barriers stand in the way of equalized funding.
She said that a plan to equalize gradually the money spent on faculty across schools over a five-year period won initial approval from the school board. But this spring, the board voted to table the controversial policy, which opponents said would anger parents, prompt so-called white flight, and lead to a decline in achievement at the better schools.
“The political campaign that will have to be waged to make this happen,” Ms. Sclafani said of ending such disparities, “will be a critical piece.”