Effects of an ostensibly race-neutral policy on students


Effects of an ostensibly race-neutral policy on students living in
poverty and students of color
Comparability requirements are technically race-neutral. This analysis provides
one example of the way that “color blind” policies can have dramatic racial implications. The costs of this federal policy are not equally shared across race lines:
Students of color are bearing the bulk of the burden.
Nonetheless, in analyzing a policy change of this magnitude,

 I would be remiss
to ignore effects on students living in poverty more broadly. Not surprisingly
(since the comparability requirement is written for their benefit), closing the
loophole appears to also be good news for this larger population as a whole.
An increase of 10 percentage points of students living in poverty today is associated with a school budget decrease of $19 per student. If we do nothing to close
the loophole before the economy rebounds and education spending rises by 4
percent, the problem will get slightly worse, meaning the decrease in spending
associated with a 10 percent increase of students in poverty will be $20. But if
we close the loophole, the negative relationship is eliminated. In the hypothetical
world where we increase spending by 4 percent and do close the loophole, the
model predicts that an increase of 10 percentage points of students living
in poverty will be associated with a $2 increase in per-pupil spending.
For students attending a school where more than 90 percent of students live in
poverty, how much does it matter if we close the loophole? 

With the loophole
closed, these schools would spend an average of $4,880 per pupil. In a world
where we spend the same amount of money but do not close the loophole, the
average spent would be $4,768. That’s a difference of $112 per student. The average high-poverty school serves 460 students. Thus for these schools, the cost of
the loophole is approximately $52,000 per year—and will go up over time. This
is more than the average first-year teacher is paid nationally Substantive concerns with closing the loophole
Is it fair to talk about this as a loophole? Doing so implies that Congress intended
comparability to mean comparable services in terms of dollars, including actual
teacher salaries, and that this intent has been circumvented by practitioners or
executive agencies trying to preserve the status quo or get around the congressional desire for equal services.

Yet the statute itself explicitly disallows the inclusion of salary differences based
on years of experience in comparability calculations.61 In 1970 when the Office
of Education (the precursor to the Department of Education) issued regulations
implementing the new comparability requirement, it included five measures of
comparability that districts had to meet. One of them was instructional salaries,
less longevity, per pupil.62 In subsequent reauthorizations, Congress did nothing
to disallow this implementation choice.
This all indicates that Congress generally intended to sanction (or, at least, to not
prohibit) teacher salary differentials between Title I and non-Title I schools so
long as the differential was due to experience. 

This does not make it wise policy,
but it does make the widely popularized “loophole” term inaccurate. Nonetheless,
I use the terminology throughout the paper because it is now a common expression in education circles that stands for disallowing district policies that turn a
blind eye to experience-based salary differentials.
Why did Congress write the law this way? Are there substantive arguments for
maintaining the status quo? Are there good arguments against closing the loophole? Two such arguments deserve discussion. The first is that teacher experience is not important in the quality of education, and that spending differences
due primarily to experience-related salary differentials should therefore not be
considered inequitable. The second is that by forcing within-district inequity to
be reduced, we might actually increase total inequity by exacerbating betweendistrict variance in spending. Let’s look at each of these arguments in turn.

Administrative challenges to closing the comparability loophole
Concerns about closing the loophole fall broadly into two groups: administrative
and substantive. This section of the report focuses on two of the most common
administrative concerns: Data management and conflicts between union contracts, federal law, and budget shortfalls.
Data management 

The first question always raised about closing the comparability loophole by
making districts account for actual teacher salaries is “How hard would this be for
districts? Can they even track this data?” Until 2009 the Department of Education
had never asked school districts for this information, and their data systems are
often not set up this way. The traditional school district has a payroll system and
a budgeting system that are separate. They are not designed to speak to one
another. The payroll staff is in charge of paying teachers; the budget staff assigns
teacher slots to schools without regard to their cost.52 These budget offices are
generally the ones responsible for maintaining federally mandated comparability
requirements among Title I and non-Title I schools.
The question, then, is whether a school district budget office has access to the
information it would need to balance school-level spending as determined by
actual teacher salaries.
“Of course,” says Matt Hill, chief strategy officer at the Los Angeles Unified School

“You know where your people are and how much you’re paying them. I
just don’t see what’s so hard.”53 Hill went on to explain that at his previous job at the
Oakland Unified School District, he used to just “download the whole budget and
all the personnel files into [his personal] computer for 30,000 kids.” It isn’t magic,
but it does take time and a little know-how, Hill says, and there should be some
technical assistance provided to districts if and when this change is implemented.
Kristen Ferris, a manager at Education Resource Strategies,54 agrees. As part of
their consulting arrangements with urban school districts, her firm does equity
analyses of how school districts spend their money. One of the things the firm
does is assess total per-pupil spending at each school using actual salaries.

 a pain,” she says, but the districts don’t have a problem actually producing the
information. And once it is in her firm’s hands, it generally only takes their team
about 16 hours to merge the information.
Sharon Eaves, general manager of the budgeting office at Houston Independent
School District, also says the data management problem is not a policy hurdle.
“Administratively, it wouldn’t be a problem,” she says, so long as there are clear
definitions of what to include in “actual salaries.”55
Stuck between union contracts, shrinking budgets, and new federal law
Clearly there is no technological reason we cannot ask districts to make this
change. But will closing the comparability loophole put district administrators
in a situation that feels so difficult that it may as well be impossible?
Robert Campbell, an analyst at the Government Accountability Office who prepared a congressional briefing on this topic a few years ago, says there is “no question” that if you change this rule without changing teacher salary policies (where
salary is based on experience), teachers would have to be rearranged so that more
of a district’s experienced teachers are in Title I schools.

 “That’s kind of the point,”
he says. “We, well, advocates, want teachers to be moved [because] there’s a problem
with the current structure.”56
In addition to the obvious questions this raises about the wisdom of forced
teacher transfers, which will be addressed below, this raises an administrative
problem for districts. They will be stuck between a rock and a hard place: Their
union contracts don’t allow forced teacher transfers, but this new federal comparability rule will essentially require teacher transfers.
Many advocates of closing the comparability loophole will disagree.
Comparability can (and should, many say) be achieved without forcing teacher
transfers. Hill of the Los Angeles School District is a big advocate of closing this
loophole. He says, “It’s not right for teachers or for kids to try to move teachers
around. I don’t think forced transfers is a good solution. Anyone who opposes this
[change] says [transfers are the only option] if you close the loophole ... because
no one wants that.

In fact, in the most recent legislative proposals to close this gap introduced in
March 2011, the drafters went so far as to include language explicitly stating
that the legislation does not require forced transfers.57 But the Government
Accountability Office’s Campbell is skeptical of closing the loophole without
effectively forcing teacher transfers. He points out that 90 percent of a school’s
expenses are instructional, meaning salary and benefits. “I think for the most part,
nothing [other than teacher transfers] would cut it. There’s just not enough money
in other things to really make a difference. It’s not just about moving computers
from one place to another.”58
For her part, Eaves of the Houston Independent School District budget office
does not have to worry about union contracts because Texas is a right-to-work
state that doesn’t have collective bargaining with unions. But she nonetheless says
that it would be “impossible” for her to meet this new requirement without forcing
teacher transfers. “The model we ran showed that at least 50 percent of my
campuses would not be in compliance. How do I bring them into compliance?
I would probably have to try to level up .

.. and where do I get the money to do
that? In a time where districts are losing money, you can’t mandate an increase
like that. We just had a 6 percent reduction in funding from the state in 2011–12,
and we’re losing more in 2012–13.”59
Hill has perhaps the best response to this legitimate concern. He says that we
should adopt this new comparability requirement in phases. We should first
require districts to start publicly reporting their actual per-pupil expenditure data
by school using real teacher salaries. This will allow advocates to explain to parents
and community members how the loophole is affecting their schools. Then, when
the economy starts to recover, and we start to grow district budgets, we ensure
that this rule is in place so that the new money is allocated more equitably.60
The challenge, it seems, is crafting a version of a closed loophole that puts Hill’s
vision into practice. Of the proposals on the table today, none include a nuanced,
phased-in timeline that would give districts this flexibility (that said, some do
delay accountability for implementation for several years). How would it look?
A trigger that only requires actual teacher salaries to be included after 3 years of
nonfederal budget growth in a given district? After a certain amount of budget
growth? It would be complicated and difficult for districts to predict. But with
enough communication, it might be the most effective way to make this change.

My recommendation section beginning on page 39 outlines one possible solution.
But before presenting that solution, it is worth noting that this entire conversation is
premised on the idea that our current teacher salary structure (based almost entirely
on seniority) is untouchable. It is certainly arguable that this seniority-based pay
system should be changed. Further research should look more deeply into the likely
effects of changing teacher pay scales on the comparability debate.
So long as seniority remains the driving factor in teacher pay, if the loophole is
closed, districts will be required to either force or incentivize experienced teachers
into high-needs schools or freeze hiring at non-Title I schools, put all new-teacher
slots into high-needs schools, and increase the perks at those schools so that the
new teachers do not feel the desire to leave as soon as they earn that option. This
would result in larger class sizes for the veteran teachers in low-need schools. This,
of course, is often prohibited by union contracts.
Closing the loophole might give districts looking to change employment practices
a bargaining chip at the union negotiating table. District negotiators could say,
“We have to meet this federal requirement. We aren’t allowed to force teachers to
move, so we either change salaries such that those willing to teach in high-needs
schools get paid more or hire more of these low-paid teachers in Title I schools
and give them smaller class sizes. If we take this second option, we might also
need to spend more on support for our teachers in high-need schools so that we
make it worth their while to stick around and draw higher salaries to these schools
in a way that evens out today’s spending gaps.” This could substantially change the
conversation at the bargaining table.
The data presented in the first half of this paper are compelling—it seems that if it
is administratively feasible, it is worth making this change. But it is important
to walk through the possible substantive drawbacks as well, before turning directly
to my recommendation. The next section does just that.

The assumption that teacher experience matters
Does a teacher’s years of experience in the classroom really affect his or her
students? It only makes sense to fight for closing the loophole if we think that the
current distribution of experience (veterans in low-needs schools and beginners
in high-needs schools) is problematic.
Eaves of the Houston Independent School District made the common argument
against this assumption eloquently You can have a beginner teacher [who is] so fired up—just going great guns.
And you can have people with 25 years [experience] who are finally getting to
the point in their careers where they’re just tired ... and are those teachers’ higher
salaries necessarily going to drive success [for those high-need students]? Because
I thought that’s what we were all about, trying to make sure the students are successful and have the highest quality teacher.
Ferris at Education Resource Strategies is not particularly sympathetic to this line
of thinking. “We know that experience is a fairly reasonable proxy for effectiveness,” she says. Current policies have created a “maldistribution of teachers,” she
continues—it’s a system that leads to a distribution of teachers that is exactly
“opposite of what you’d want them to be,” from an equity perspective.
Education policy research partially confirms Ferris’s assertion. Research shows, for
instance, that “inexperienced teachers (those with less than three years of experience) are typically less effective than more senior teachers,” although “the benefits
of experience appear to level off after about five years.”63 It is worth noting that these
studies are based on limited data: Most researchers base their work on student
achievement on standardized tests, which are incomplete measures of the extent
to which students gain the skills and knowledge they’re meant to gain in school.
Where do brand-new—and therefore less-effective—teachers tend to cluster?
They land in the high-minority, hard-to-staff schools that are the focus of this
report (and, of course, in high-poverty schools that often, but not always, are the
same schools).64 This is largely because of higher turnover rates in these schools.
“Schools with greater proportions of minority students [have] greater difficulty
retaining teachers than ... low-minority schools,” says Cassandra Guarino of the
RAND Corporation.65 Nonwhite and poor students attend schools with less-qualified and less-experienced teachers.66
The takeaway here: Eaves is right that the salary difference between a teacher with
five years of experience and a teacher with 20 years of experience is often bigger
than the effectiveness differential between those two teachers, but there is a real
difference in effectiveness between a first- or second-year teacher and that teacher
in her 10th year. To the extent that the loophole is allowing districts to count a
school with entirely first- and second-year teachers as “comparable” to one with
more experienced staff, it is harming students at the former school by providing
them with lower-quality educational opportunities.

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