No easy answers: The shades of grey of equity issues

See all posts
by Kate Walsh

To shed some light on disparities in how schools get funded, two think tanks have put out a joint paper profiling two schools. One of the schools is located in the very poor school district of Cumberland County, North Carolina, posting an 80 percent poverty rate. The other is in Fairfax County, Virginia, a wealthy suburban school district outside of Washington, DC that has only 6 percent poverty. In spite of their disparate settings, the two schools share something in common: their own student populations are predominantly poor (60 percent). However, the total funding of the Virginia school is twice as much as the school in North Carolina receives. Apparently, if you?re poor, it?s far better to attend school in Virginia than the Tar Heel State.

The decision by the report?s authors, Marguerite Roza and Kevin Carey, to focus on two schools helps to clarify some of the more complicated and technical issues about how schools get funded, giving us a ground level view of the impact of policy from on high. But as tidy as this approach may seem, it also deprives us of many of the facts and context needed to truly understand the problem, messy though they may be. Too much critical data are presented absent the most basic documentation, including a puzzling calculation that follows on the heels of an ambiguously stated set of solutions, describing the funding that each school would get if all wrongs were righted. We?re prepared to buy the argument, but couldn?t we at least get an appendix or two?

We?re told that the feds share some of the blame for the disparity because of a uniquely bad formula for divvying up Title I funds among the nation?s 14,000 school districts. Roza and Carey argue that the formula should consider the different costs of living in different states, but they claim that the feds current way of allocating funds works against districts located in poor states, and is a boon to districts in wealthier states.

Furthermore, though the report?s focus is on two schools in North Carolina and Virginia, Roza and Carey would only have us assume that the Title I formula unfairly benefits wealthier Virginia and penalizes North Carolina, citing instead the disproportionate allocations to Connecticut and Mississippi to illustrate just how askew the formula is. We?re all guilty of using the most dramatic example we can come up with to make a point, but this isn?t a spitting contest. Let?s acknowledge grey areas where they exist, as is the case here. In fact, Fairfax County schools are not the lucky beneficiaries of a clumsy federal formula. Fairfax -- with teacher salaries that are 47 percent higher, cost of living that is 42 percent higher, and housing costs that are 75 percent higher -- receives 35 percent more in Title I funding than the North Carolina district, -- to my ears this sounds about right.

The report also treats state and local funding as one and the same, for reasons that are never made clear. That may be true, but I for one was left with the impression that the Commonwealth of Virginia too should be blamed for the excessive largess to Fairfax?s schools. In reality Virginia seems to have a pretty fair system in place, funding only 25 percent of Fairfax's education bill, compared to contributions as high as 85 percent in poorer parts of the state.

So just who should be blamed for the inequity between these two schools? The inequity arises because the Fairfax County Public Schools have the funds to take care of their own. Fairfax has the luxury of only a small number of schools with any substantial concentration of poverty compared to the North Carolina district with nearly every one of its schools high-needs. While much of the complaints over the lack of funding comparability among rich and poor schools stems from the maldistribution of teachers (more expensive, senior teachers tend to work in wealthier schools), the teachers in this particular high poverty school in Fairfax earn $4,000 more than the average teacher in the district.

This inequity can be addressed in two ways: put the brakes on Fairfax and other affluent districts spending or require them to spread their wealth through state redistribution. The authors suggest that we might enact federal legislation to put a limit on how much they can spend, but this idea is far too Soviet for my blood, and states that have tried anything like it have had experiences similar to Vermont, which saw big dips in its tax base from the reactions of wealthier districts, miffed over being told when and how to spend their money.

Likewise, for many reasons that were previously enumerated, I find the most common proposal that the federal government would require school resources to be equally distributed among all schools in a district deeply problematic. Equalizing school resources essentially means equalizing teacher salaries among schools, since salaries account for all but a tiny fraction of school spending. It?s an idea premised on the assumption that the more you pay for a teacher, the more value you get. Not only is it a flawed notion--with the exception that a teacher in her first and second year is more likely to be weak--but the impact of such a policy would do more to diminish a principal?s authority to decide the composition of his or her staff than any collective bargaining agreement ever did.

What we need is comparability on performance, not salaries. Leave schools alone that are performing above expectations. Look for the real indicators of equitable distribution of teachers, such as turnover rates, teacher absenteeism rates and numbers of first year teachers, which neither the feds nor most states require reported at the school level. These are the teacher quality variables?which necessitate talented leadership ? that can meaningfully resolve some of these inequities.

Nevertheless, I accept the premise of the argument that it may fall to the federal government to play the Great Equalizer, using its Title I dollars to make sure that poor districts in poor states get as much money as counterparts in wealthier areas, much as it falls to wealthy states to ensure that their poor districts get a boost.