Tipping the Scales: How a loophole in current education law allows inequities in education spending

There is a major loophole in how the country’s low-income schools are funded, and it needs to close.

This is West Dillon Elementary.

This is East Dillon Elementary.

East Dillon has 200 students and 10 teachers.

West Dillon has 200 students and 10 teachers.

At first glance, these hypothetical schools look the same. But they’re not.

Eighty percent of East Dillon’s children live in poverty. It is considered a low-income school. Or, as defined by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as No Child Left Behind, East Dillon is a Title I school.

West Dillon’s students are better off. Only 20 percent of them come from low-income families. Thus, West Dillon is not a Title I school.

Each year, the federal government gives the Dillon School District extra funds to spend on resources for students in Title I schools.

But in order to qualify for this federal money, the Dillon School District must show that it is spending its state and local money on the two schools equally. This is called comparability, and it’s meant to ensure that schools in a district are funded equally by state and local resources, and that Title I provides additional funds to the low-income schools that need more help.

But there’s a loophole.

Typically, school districts show that their Title I and non-Title I schools have “comparable” services by showing similar student-teacher ratios. But let’s take a closer look.

Most of East Dillon’s teachers are new to the field and make an average salary of $45,000 a year. West Dillon’s teachers, on the other hand, have been teaching for an average of 20 years and make $65,000 a year. So while the two schools have the same amount of teachers and the same amount of students, West Dillon spends more money on its teachers than East Dillon does. Which means West Dillon also spends more money per student than East Dillon. That’s hardly comparable, and it adds up to a big difference in total spending.

This comparability provision is misleading. Districts should have to show that schools receive comparable resources—in actual dollars per pupil.

East Dillon should get its fair share of state and local funds to provide basic services to its lower income students. High-poverty schools need to be able to support new teachers, offer incentives for effective veterans to stay, and use strategies like expanded learning time to enhance the educational experience of students in high-poverty schools.

It’s time to stop shortchanging our most vulnerable students and finally close the comparability loophole.

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