Teacher Layoffs And Funding Inequity Are A One-Two Punch To Low-Income Students

Our guest blogger is Theodora Chang, Education Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Over the weekend, thousands of students from New York to California learned that they might lose their teachers to budget-related layoffs. Teachers in Providence, Rhode Island, have also been put on notice. These layoffs are predicted to hit students in high-poverty schools the hardest — an additional wallop on top of already existing resource inequities.

What few policymakers realize is that funding issues are actually hitting low-income kids twice — once through district resource allocations, and then again when they lose their teachers to layoffs. School districts have long turned a blind eye to funding inequities among their schools, and the federal government has glossed over the issue.

Under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, districts must provide resources and educational opportunities to schools receiving Title I funds that are “comparable” to those provided in non-Title I schools. However, there are a couple of loopholes that allow districts to sidestep this crucial responsibility.

One of the key issues with the current law is that it allows districts to show equity by using non-financial measures instead of actual dollars. For example, a school that is receiving Title I dollars is able to say that it is providing its students an education comparable to that provided in a nearby non-Title I school simply because they have the same ratio of instructional staff to students. Demonstrating equity in number of instructional staff does not translate to equity in quality of instruction, since this is largely independent of the level of resources available, and it certainly does not guarantee Title I schools a fair share of state and local resources.

The reason is that more experienced teachers tend to transfer to low-poverty schools, and inexperienced — therefore inexpensive — teachers are over-represented in high-poverty schools. These schools need their fair share of resources to support these teachers using strategies such as high-quality induction and coaching, or selectively lowering class-sizes for them. However, as the GAO shows in a new report released yesterday, the vast majority of districts are currently meeting Title I comparability requirements using these ratios instead of dollars.

Rather than continue to allow districts to submit vague assurances of comparability through uniform staffing levels or ratios, Congress should require them to demonstrate that actual per-pupil expenditures from state and local sources at Title I schools are no less than those at non-Title I schools. Ratios can often provide very little information about teacher quality equity because “instructional staff” actually includes uncertified teachers, paraprofessionals, and aides – all of whom constitute a higher proportion of the staff in Title I schools than in non-Title I schools. On the other hand, per-pupil expenditures are calculated using actual staff salaries, and would thus be a more accurate reflection of staffing and funding discrepancies between Title I and non-Title I schools.

There are many opportunities to reallocate resources equitably. States need to handle their budget crises as fairly and innovatively as they can. Congress should close the comparability loophole during ESEA reauthorization to ensure that Title I lives up to its stated purpose of “improving the academic achievement of the disadvantaged.”