Study: No Child law loophole can mean fewer dollars for poor schools

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 22, 2012 

— Across the country, African American and Latino students are being shortchanged in state and local spending on schools because of a loophole in federal law, according to a study that crunched new data from the Department of Education.

The reason for the disparity is not just because of differences in property tax revenue among school districts. It has to do with how districts allocate their state and local education dollars.

The study by the Center for American Progress, a liberal policy research group, said that a “comparability loophole” in the federal education law specifically says that districts should not include teacher salary differences when they show how they comply with requirements to provide comparable education across all schools.

The loophole, contained in the 2001 No Child left Behind Act, states that while school districts don’t have to show that they spend equal amounts on all schools, they must show that they provide comparable educations.

But according to the study, “When veteran teachers elect to move to low-need schools in richer, whiter neighborhoods, they bring higher salaries to those schools. New teachers who tend to start out in high-need schools, serving many students of color and poor students, earn comparatively low salaries. This leads to significantly lower per-pupil spending in the schools with the highest concentrations of non-white students.”

Using national school spending data that the federal government did not begin collecting until 2009, the study found that schools spend an average of $334 more annually on each white student than each non-white student.

In the most racially separated schools, the study said, the differences were even higher.

“Most shocking is the data showing that schools with 90 percent or more students of color spend a full $733 less per student per year than schools with 90 percent or more white students,” the report said.

The disparity is possibly most felt in California and Texas, where more than a third of non-white students attend schools, according to the federal data used in the study.

The loophole in the No Child Left Behind law, the signature education policy measure under former President George W. Bush, spells out how school districts qualify for federal money for high-poverty schools.

Sandy Kress, Bush’s top adviser on education during the debate over the No Child law, said it was clear at the time that the loophole could cause problems.

“We were more than open to doing something about it, but there was no will in the Congress,” he said. “This inequity is a serious one.”

Lindsey Burke, an education fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that making funding for public schools more equal wasn’t the key to improving education. Giving parents more control over spending was, she said.

“This equalization of funding and equalization of programs in education – it’s sort of been a perennial liberal agenda for a long time,” Burke said. “But what we’ve seen is that there’s little to no correlation between spending and academic achievement. In fact, you see many high-spending school districts with low levels of academic achievement, and the inverse is true as well.”

The Center for American Progress report said the spending gap in the most segregated schools could be reduced by about one-third if the federal loophole were gradually closed.

“Any change in education policy that could come from D.C. is incremental, and to get to a third is a big step,” said the report’s author, Ary Spatig-Amerikaner, who conducted the study while doing graduate work in public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

In California, for instance, schools serving 90 percent or more non-white students spent $4,380 less per pupil than schools with 90 percent or more white students, she found. Texas schools spent $911 less.

Ann B. Clark, the chief academic officer of North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, said she had not yet seen the report, but she said that spending on salaries wasn’t the best measure of what helped lift school performance.

“Our strategy in Charlotte ... has been putting our very best leaders and most highly effective teachers in those schools,” she said, adding that teachers are chosen based on “their success rate with students,” not how long they’ve been teaching.

Email: rschoof@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @reneeschoof

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