Are districts misspending Title I funds?

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An emerging issue destined to gain even more traction in the next year (if NCLB teacher quality provisions actually get enforced) is the disparity of resources among schools within the same school district. Some excellent research done in 2003 by the Center on Reinventing Public Education's Marguerite Roza and Paul Hill brought to light how more affluent schools in a school district end up getting a lot more money because they get a lot more experienced teachers, even though the extra funds don't show up in individual schools' budgets because the teachers' salaries are averaged district-wide.

Roza and Hill, along with colleague Larry Miller, take this issue a step further in a new report, "Strengthening Title I to Help High Poverty Schools." In it, they theorize (because no district was actually willing to open their books to them) that even many of a district's Title I dollars, intended by the feds to give the poorest schools a leg up, still end up going to wealthier schools in the district. The report goes on to illustrate how district budget practices might lead to district's routinely "supplanting" Title I dollars for expenses that the district should be picking up with other funds. Here's how they suggest this happens:

1. We know that the poorest schools employ the least experienced teachers, on average costing less than the average salary of all teachers in the district.

2. We also can assume that teachers paid with Title I funds in these poor schools are as likely to be as inexperienced as regular teachers, also costing less on average.

3. The difference between the actual salary of these less expensive teachers and the higher average salary used by the district for budgeting purpose might routinely be absorbed into the district's general operating budget.

4. These absorbed Title I funds would then be distributed to all schools, even wealthy ones that don't qualify for Title I.

While the theory here suggests an inappropriate use of federal dollars, it is also important to acknowledge that it's not clear how common this practice might be, even in districts that fund schools using average salaries. Roza's own informal survey would suggest that some do and some don't. Districts normally have a pretty strong incentive not to be found supplanting their services with federal dollars.

But what is especially critical to keep in mind as we approach the NCLB enforcement deadlines, when school districts may face fines for having assigned too many of their best teachers to their most affluent schools, is that for most urban school districts "affluence" is a pretty relative term. The schools that researchers often classify as "affluent" are anything but; usually they're just less poor than the poorest. One recent policy report (not Roza's) classified any school under 80 percent free lunch as affluent--hardly a fair cutoff. In Roza's paper, the cutoff was more sensible at 60 percent. While it's a useful contribution to the debate, the real disparities in teacher quality may still lie along more traditional boundaries of city and suburb.