On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Education released a damning new report showing that school districts across our country are unevenly distributing their state and local funds, shortchanging schools that serve low-income students. The data reveals for the first time the extent of inequity in our nation’s per-pupil expenditures from state and local sources.
Here’s how the numbers break down: Within a given school district, 36 percent of elementary schools have expenditures that are at least 10 percent above or below the district average. The figure for high schools is 42 percent, and for middle schools it’s 30 percent. Tellingly, schools in low-income communities tend to be the ones whose expenditures fall below average. Eighty-two percent of Title I districts – the school districts that receive federal funding to provide extra resources for the neediest students - had at least one Title I school with lower state and local per-pupil expenditures than the average of similar non-Title I schools.
Title I funds, which amount to $14.5 billion in the current fiscal year, are meant to enhance the educational experience of students living in concentrated poverty.
The report puts the spotlight on a federal requirement for districts receiving Title I funds. The so-called “comparability requirement” mandates that the district’s Title I schools and non-Title I schools receive reasonably similar resources from state and local sources. The reason for this is to ensure that Title I funds enhance funding for Title I schools - not replace state and local funding for those schools.
But the comparability requirement has a loophole. Districts do not have to report the portion of teachers’ compensation that is tied to experience - a chief driver of higher teacher pay. Often, teachers with more experience migrate to a district’s higher-income schools, taking those funds with them and away from the Title I schools.
Past research commissioned by the Center for American Progress and the American Enterprise Institute found the same troubling patterns of inequity among traditional public schools in Florida and California.
This Department of Education report goes further, pulling back the curtain to look at nearly all districts receiving Title I funds. Nobody should be terribly surprised that this new data also shows that - on a national level - the schools serving a higher proportion of low-income students tend to have lower expenditures of non-federal funds. In fact, if the Title I comparability requirement were revised to address this loophole, nearly one in five districts would be out of compliance with the law.
In Chicago, for example, Title I schools with expenditures below the average of non-Title I schools had an average school poverty rate of 89 percent, as opposed to 45 percent in non-Title I schools. Yet despite having nearly twice the poverty rate, these Title I schools had average per-pupil expenditures that were 13 percent below the average for non-Title I schools.
There is little wonder that the National Education Association supports closing the comparability loophole. Advocates for low-income children should make use of the new data to conduct additional analyses that expose misguided state and local education spending policies.
The Department of Education should be commended for its initial efforts in this area, and for highlighting the policy relevance of this new data. It has clearly embraced the new era of responsibility, and patterns emerging from the analysis of this new expenditure data will surely call on local and state education officials to do the same.
Raegen Miller is Associate Director for Education Research at the Center for American Progress.Cynthia G. Brown is Vice President for Education Policy at the Center.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.