Fix this funding gap!

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A recent report from the Education Trust-West casts a harsh light on a knotty but significant problem: poor schools are routinely shortchanged on funding compared to more affluent schools within the same school district. The Ed Trust-West report looks at the ubiquitous practice of district central offices allocating funding to schools by calculating the average teacher salary across the entire school district, rather than differentiating how the district is clearly allocating more money to some schools to pay teachers over others. Typically these are the more affluent schools because they tend to employ the more experienced?and expensive?teachers. If funds were allocated according to the actual salaries of teachers at different schools within the same district, the huge funding gaps between affluent versus nonaffluent, and high-minority versus low-minority schools would be more readily transparent.

While the report doesn't reveal a new problem (it was first documented almost two years ago by Marguerite Roza and Paul Hill; a version of their paper is available here), it does tell how one school district, Oakland, has solved the inequity. That district allocates the money to pay for teaching positions, as well as all school expenses, to schools based on an individual school?s student enrollment. Administrators are free to disperse their funding as they see fit or, more often, adapt to the reality at hand. For example, if a poor school in Oakland can only attract new and relatively inexpensive teachers, the district lets it spend funds that are typically reserved for teacher salaries on other programs of the school's choosing. Of course, schools with higher salaries on average would not have access to extra funding.

There's one aspect of the Ed-Trust report worth quibbling over: its failure to point out the mistaken notion that just because a teacher is paid more, he or she is necessarily actually worth more. In fact, little research supports the notion that the more experience a teacher has the greater his or her value. Instead, most research points to a big jump in a teacher's value (in terms of student achievement) after only one or two years of teaching, but experience doesn't appear to contribute all that much after that point. Nevertheless, we're better off having these gaps documented?even if they don't quite add up to the sharp disparities that Ed Trust-West portrays.