Teaching Profession

Draft Proposal Seeks to Equalize School Resources

By Bess Keller — September 12, 2007 8 min read
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A draft provision for the No Child Left Behind Act that would provide more money to schools with the least experienced teachers at the expense of schools with more senior ones is likely to face stiff opposition if the proposed change becomes part of the bill that goes before Congress.

Organizations representing teachers, state legislatures, and district administrators have already voiced opposition, saying such a policy would be a poor way to address the so-called teacher gap.

The “salary comparability” provision is part of a preliminary draft for reauthorizing the NCLB law put forward late last month by key House members. (“Draft Bill Heats Up NCLB-Renewal Debate,” Sept. 5, 2007.)

The comparability rule would aim to ensure that the cost of paying teachers’ salaries does not end up, in effect, lavishing more money per student on one school than another. It builds on a principle already set out in the part of the law authorizing the Title I compensatory education program: Federal dollars are to be added to a school district’s budget only after spending from state and local sources is equalized among all its schools.

In recent reauthorizations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, however, districts were allowed to exclude teachers’ salaries from their calculations, and pay costs could vary by school as long as all teachers were paid on the same scale. The 5½-year-old No Child Left Behind law is the current version of the ESEA.

Under the draft proposal for the pending reauthorization, the exclusion would end, and schools with less expensive staffs would have to get their equal share of salary costs. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the prime force behind the “discussion draft,” called the change “very important” in comments this month. Access to education depends on access to capable teachers, said Mr. Miller, the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

‘Highest Priority’

Bolstered by research from the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education showing that per-pupil salary gaps can go at least as high as $3,700, some advocates for poor children have pushed for an end to the exclusion.

“Title I can never have its intended effect of buying extra resources for poor kids if this intentional loophole is not closed,” said Amy Wilkins, a vice president of the Education Trust, a Washington group that presses for stronger education standards for disadvantaged students. “Among possible improvements to the law, this is our highest priority.”

But others see the possible change as top-down management that would do little to solve a problem they acknowledge is serious—a dearth of skilled teachers in the schools that need them most.

“I think we ought to address the actual reasons it’s hard to get veteran teachers to go into high-poverty schools,” said Antonia Cortese, the executive vice president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers. Furthermore, she said, “we shouldn’t ask districts to do things that the law isn’t going to pay for.”

Ms. Cortese’s remark came before the House education panel released further draft proposals for NCLBfor NCLB, under which the federal government would invest millions to make teaching in high-need schools more attractive. (“Draft Retains Quality Rules for Teachers,” Sept. 12, 2007.)

Some of that money would be in the form of bonuses for teachers deemed outstanding based, in part, on test-score gains, a means of evaluation the two national teachers’ unions oppose to varying degrees.

Teacher-Salary Comparability Conditions

In districts where some of the schools receive Title I funds and some do not: The average teacher salary per pupil in Title I schools would have to be equal to or greater than the average teacher salary in non-Title I schools

In districts where all schools receive Title I funds:

The average teacher salary in schools in the two-fifths of schools with the highest percentage of low-income families would have to be equal to or greater than the average teacher salary in schools in the two-fifths of schools with the lowest percentage of lowincome families.

SOURCE: Miller-McKeon discussion draft of NCLB reauthorization

Joel Packer, the director of education policy and practice for the National Education Association, which represents more than 2.5 million teachers, argued that research doesn’t exist to show whether the rule change would be likely to help or hurt, so it is at best premature. The NEA is also concerned that the provision would lead to district actions that might clash with teachers’ bargained contracts, he said.

“A gut issue for our members is that they are opposed to something that weakens rights they have under their contract, and it is not the federal role to interfere with that,” Mr. Packer said.

The draft provision is explicit that involuntary transfers of teachers would not be required to even out what is spent per school. In fact, the money would get added at a low-spending school would not have to be spent on salaries at all.

Possible uses of such a windfall for a school might be beefing up professional development or lowering class sizes with an eye to making the school a better place to work, supporters of the idea said. Or the money might provide bonuses to teachers who came or stayed.

The amounts might not be trivial: If the salary gap per pupil is, say, $2,000 annually in a district, a 600-student school there could see its budget go up by $1.2 million.

Challenges to Contracts?

The draft plan would give districts three years to even out spending among schools, so that if schools had to shed experienced teachers to meet a new budget target, attrition might do the work.

But district leaders and principals could also decide that some teachers must leave their jobs, which might, depending on the bargained contract, put such teachers in a rights limbo or give them little choice over their new jobs. Principals, for their part, might be required to accept teachers who were forced out, whether the school’s leader wanted them or not.

Susan Moore Johnson, an expert on teachers’ careers and teacher-union collective bargaining at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, cautioned against exaggerating the dangers of contract violations. The bigger game for unions and for districts, she said, would be to work together to ensure that extra dollars to high-poverty schools were wisely spent.

A longtime observer of federal education policy, Jack Jennings, said he was not particularly optimistic about the draft provision’s chances because of the staunch opposition, which also includes the National Conference of State Legislatures and the American Association of School Administrators. The latter represents district superintendents and other senior administrators. The perception among teachers that the provision would lead to teacher reassignment might be enough to sink it, said Mr. Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, in Washington, and a former aide to House Democrats.

“It’s a matter of perception rather than legality,” he added.

Like others, Mr. Jennings sees the proposed change, which he favors, as adding to the transparency of school budgeting and spotlighting the ways in which schools with the largest numbers of poor and minority children are, he contends, shortchanged.

Paul T. Hill,who leads the Center on Reinventing Public Education and initiated the research documenting significant teacher-salary gaps in some 10 urban districts, agreed that the proposal would not have an easy time of it on Capitol Hill.

“It will be opposed in the back rooms,” he predicted. “Unions and districts have built their financial structures around” using average salaries as opposed to actual salaries to divvy up money to schools, Mr. Hill said.

A foreshadowing of the controversy may have come last spring when New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein backed off some of his plans for revamping the way the city finances its schools. The proposed new formula raised the real possibility that veteran teachers would be moved to schools serving the most disadvantaged students. Intense opposition from the local teachers’ union, middle-class and high-profile schools in the district, and parent and community groups caused the chancellor and his boss, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, to back off the proposal.

Overreaching Claimed

Meanwhile, groups other than teachers’ unions that have from the beginning slammed the NCLB law as an unwarranted federal intrusion into state and local affairs—and one likely to do more harm than good—are once again crying foul.

“Here you have the federal government mucking around in school finance formulas that are notoriously complicated and very individual to each state,” said David L. Shreve, the federal-affairs counsel for the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures. “There have to be better ways that are not so process- and compliance-oriented to reward teachers who choose to teach in the most troubled schools.”

Mary Kusler, the chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators, took the argument even further, saying that the draft requirement might hamstring hiring moves by districts that could benefit poor children. She gave the example of staffing a magnet school, which might require snagging particular teachers at higher salaries. Without the staffing, such a program’s chance of success would dim, Ms. Kusler suggested, and with it the likelihood that children from the surrounding low-income neighborhood would have easy access to a superior school.

Even supporters of the proposed change agree that comparability would not alone be enough to achieve the goal of improving the level of teaching at schools for the poorest children.

“It’s probably the right thing to do to equalize the distribution of resources” across the board, said Barnett Berry, the president of the Center for Teaching Quality, in Hillsborough, N.C.

But, he went on in a recent e-mail, the additional dollars would be “insufficient to attract more qualified teachers to high-priority schools, and then there are the critical issues of school leadership, class size, facilities and resources, and the sound professional development needed to address the maldistribution of well-prepared and supported teachers.” House plan would address teacher-pay differences that critics say shortchange the neediest schools


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