Closing the comparability loophole

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With renewed activity on the ESEA reauthorization front, the debate continues in federal policy circles about the wisdom of comparability.

"Comparability" requires districts to evenly distribute their state and local funds across schools before allocating Title I funds. The major issue is that districts can exempt salary differentials when determining how to distribute their state and local funds. When average salaries are used, high needs schools, which often employ more junior-level, lower-paid teachers, can be shortchanged.

Many groups are adamant that the feds must do more to make districts level the playing field in salary disparities that exist between their poor and less poor schools. Others--such as us--are worried than an order from on high to equalize teacher salaries across schools will result in all sorts of district tomfoolery, leading districts to make decisions about school staffing that have less to do with what's good for a school and more to do with meeting some federal requirements.

A new report from the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) offers some smart alternatives to shuffling around staff. Instead, districts could provide bonuses to teachers in needy schools to bring them up to the district average salary. They can also reduce class size and/or concentrate support staff in needy schools, or adjust per-pupil allocations to remedy the gaps. Of course, these steps aren't mutually exclusive--a proactive district might choose to implement all four.

While solid ideas that don't involve shifting staff among buildings, these recommendations do require additional resources. We still worry that cash-strapped districts will opt for the free solution: reassigning teachers.

The principle that must be preserved above all else, including equalized funding, is each principal's ability to select staff at the building level. Guidance like CRPE's is certainly helpful in showing good options, but getting that horse to water is one thing; making him drink is another.