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 District. 

“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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