Teaching Profession

Teacher-Pay Equity: An Unforeseen ESSA Wrinkle

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 31, 2016 6 min read
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This item originally appeared on the Politics K-12 blog.

When Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act last year, lawmakers did not change federal requirements governing how local spending between high- and low-poverty schools must be comparable. But those requirements—specifically, how they relate to teacher salaries—have been on the minds of K-12 advocacy groups during negotiated rulemaking for ESSA, which started last week, even though it’s not on the table as a topic subject to negotiations.

Here’s a quick explanation of the policy issue: Equitable local spending is known in Beltway shorthand as “comparability.” The whole point of federal Title I funding is that it’s added on top of equal funding, rather than compensating for local disparities. So, districts have to calculate whether local spending is comparable between low- and high-poverty schools in order to draw on federal Title I money for disadvantaged students. When they do this, districts are allowed to demonstrate Title I compliance by showing that students in both sets of schools are given comparable staffing levels and follow the same salary schedule.

But that method leaves out whether teachers in high- and low-poverty schools are actually being paid a similar amount in real-life dollars.

Critics say that this constitutes a major loophole in the federal equitable-spending requirement, because novice teachers, who make less, tend to cluster in high-poverty schools. And ultimately, they say, that means many high-poverty schools get shortchanged on local funding.

But others say calling this feature of NCLB and ESSA a “loophole” is a distorted view of what constitutes comparable resources. They say what a teacher’s paid is far from a watertight indicator of that teacher’s quality, and that changing how salaries meet the comparability requirement would lead to a high number of forced teacher transfers and other undesirable outcomes.

It’s a big enough deal, policy-wise, that just a whiff of talk about changing salary calculations can trigger a strong reaction from a variety of groups, including civil rights advocates, teachers’ unions, and administrator groups. A 2011 U.S. Department of Education study of intra-district spending found that students with large shares of low-income students tend to get the short end of the stick when it comes to local funding. And my coworker Stephen Sawchuk also wrote about a 2014 report from the Education Department’s office for civil rights showing that students of color are more likely to be taught by underqualified teachers, novice teachers, or those who are paid less than their peers than other students.

Let’s keep a few things in mind: No one we’ve talked to is trying to change the substance of comparability through ESSA regulations. Comparability as a policy is outside the scope of negotiated rulemaking for the law. And again, Congress did not change comparability when it passed ESSA. But equitable spending on salaries did come up during a negotiated rulemaking session last week, when Karen Hawley Miles of Education Research Strategies touched on it in a presentation to the rulemaking committee, as my coworker Alyson Klein reported.

So why is it on people’s minds? It’s because of negotiated rulemaking for supplement-not-supplant, a different federal requirement that Title I money must provide additional services for students, and not simply supplant state and local spending.

Under ESSA, by December 2017, districts will have to show a general fiscal methodology for how state and local money is allocated, in order to ensure that Title I dollars are truly supplemental. (That’s a departure from previous practice that, briefly stated, focused on itemizing Title I services in order to show the federal aid was supplemental.)

The U.S. Department of Education can’t dictate what methodology or methodologies districts must use. But what has to figure into any such methodology? According to Liz King of the Leadership Conference Education Fund, any coherent way of calculating state and local funding allocations in supplement-not-supplant would require districts to include actual teacher salaries.

But if a district’s schools with large shares of low-income students are paying their teachers less in total than teachers in wealthier schools, that could mean Title I dollars are ultimately supplanting, not supplementing, other spending in disadvantaged schools, she said. In case it’s not clear, King believes that not requiring actual teacher salaries to be part of comparability calculations under federal law does constitute a real loophole, albeit one that’s not new in ESSA.

There’s a separate ESSA requirement that states and districts report per-pupil expenditures for each school and district, including federal, state, and local funds, including actual personnel salaries. It doesn’t make sense, King said, to calculate those expenditures using actual personnel salaries as the law requires, but not use those salaries for supplement-not-supplant.

“Between the per-pupil expenditure reporting requirement and the new supplement-not-supplant test, we will see that the comparability test is not actually telling you what you want to know,” King said. (King is a non-voting member of the ESSA negotiated rulemaking committee but can join in discussions—see the full list of negotiators in the box below.)

And King doesn’t want supplement-not-supplant to be used to micromanage district school spending and teacher placement. What should happen, she said, is greater equity across schools within each district when it comes to the distribution of state and local funds.

“Schools should be able say, ‘Yes, this school has a higher concentration of novice teachers, but it has smaller class sizes,’” King said.

So what’s the counter-argument?

Noelle Ellerson of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, says her group is “significantly concerned” about the issue with respect to negotiated rulemaking—AASA opposes using teacher salaries in comparability, and is worried that part of the rulemaking committee’s discussions about supplement-not-supplant could potentially blur the line between the two issues. (Ellerson is not on the negotiated-rulemaking committee.)

For one thing, she said, lawmakers’ decision not to change comparability in ESSA was a deliberate choice as part of a legislative compromise. (At least one previous attempt to address comparability in Congress, back in 2007, didn’t get much traction.) And crucially, consideration of teacher-pay equity between schools falls outside the scope of what’s supposed to be on the table during negotiations over supplement-not-supplant, Ellerson said.

Ellerson also expressed concern over how the infusion of teacher salary into supplement-not-supplant misrepresents the link between salary and teacher effectiveness: “So long as schools continue to rely, largely, on single salary schedules, it will prove tricky to reliably determine teacher effectiveness based solely on salary, and any rush to include salary in an equity conversation is equally misaligned.”

School districts can and should look for ways to improve their hiring practices and get better teachers, Ellerson said. But in general they’re doing the best they can, and aren’t intentionally loading the dice for wealthier schools when it comes to teacher salaries.

It’s also important to note that one of the questions the Education Department provided to negotiators to consider in the background paper on developing supplement-not-supplant regulations is: What would it mean to have a methodology for calculating state and local allocation of money in districts that allocate staff positions instead of dollars, or allocates money through plans like weighted-student formulas?

It’s too early to say whether, or how, teacher salaries will factor into supplement-not supplant in ESSA regulations. But it seems relatively clear that it’s on people’s minds, and at some point down the road, we can expect to see the issue come back in a new, perhaps more robust form.

Photo: Attendees applaud, and President Barack Obama smiles, after he signed the Every Student Succeeds Act into law. Evan Vucci/AP

Chart: List of negotiators on the Every Student Succeeds Act negotiated rulemaking committee, from the U.S. Department of Education.

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