Comparability: When being right may not be enough

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Advocates for using federal muscle to force school districts to equalize funding across all their schools--referred to in shorthand as "comparability"-- have generated a new line of defense in the release of a short and smart paper by Center for American Progress scholar Robert Gordon.

Having managed an attempt by the New York City district to equalize funding among its schools, Gordon is uniquely qualified to explain why something that seems so right is so difficult to accomplish. New York's attempt to achieve comparability was slapped down by some expected adversaries: middle class families fearful of having resources taken out of their schools and teachers' unions fearful of anything that would make it less attractive to keep more senior staff on rolls. Gordon explores a third foe to comparability, the state department of education, proving itself indifferent to the city's attempt, in part for fear of being accused by the feds of a supplanting violation. As Gordon rightly puts it, Title I as currently structured by the U.S. Congress "is surprisingly indifferent to educational equity."

Where Gordon's argument is not as consistently sharp is in a rundown of solutions to the various obstacles to comparability, particularly his reasoning for why the middle class won't flee when deprived of great teachers who usually cost more. Good for Gordon for even acknowledging the importance of a middle class presence if poor kids are to ever have a chance, since some in the comparability movement fail to realize how essential it is for school districts like Baltimore and Philadelphia not to lose what's left of their middle class. However, his assertion that comparability would have a limited impact on middle class schools essentially because middle class students will still have each other and private fundraising would be able to compensate for any loss of resources (when many districts put extremely tight controls on what dollars raised privately can fund) is too dismissive of a legitimate and real concern.

Those who are calling for equity of resources among schools stand on firm moral ground. However, it would be a mistake to proceed entirely on the basis of being right without also understanding that we are still capable of inflicting great harm. We still do not know how deep this problem really is among school districts, as the study to date has looked at only a handful. Too much of the cost disparities that are quoted depend on the cost of a teacher of five years versus a teacher of 20 years when we know that the disparity in their years of service tells us almost nothing about their impact on children. No one has spelled out on paper, let alone in practice, how to achieve comparability in districts which have almost no middle class. Before the feds ask districts to turn themselves upside down and inside out, how about incentivizing a handful of disparate districts to look for practical solutions to these real and important challenges?