The Title I program contains a school funding "comparability" provision that requires school districts to use state and local funds to provide comparable services to needy Title I schools and less needy, non-Title I schools. By equalizing education services before the addition of federal funds, the comparability provision aims to ensure that districts distribute Title I money as a type of enrichment on top of a level playing field.
In practice, however, the comparability provision is fundamentally flawed and fails to equalize state and local spending between Title I and non-Title I schools. ESSA and its governing regulations allow school districts to exclude teacher salary differences, a proxy for teacher quality, from comparability calculations. The omission renders districts’ claims of comparable services meaningless. Inclusion of paraprofessionals in staff-student ratios and lack of data-based state enforcement further weaken the provision’s potential civil rights power.
History of the Comparability “Loophole”
Initially, U.S. Department of Education regulations regarding comparability were quite specific, requiring districts to demonstrate comparability in five key categories:
student per certified teacher
student per other certified instructional staff
student per non-certified instructional staff
expenditures per student for staff salaries (other than longevity pay)
expenditures per student for other instructional costs (primarily materials)
But following complaints from local school districts of intrusive and burdensome federal control, the comparability provision and its enforcement were significantly watered down. First, in 1971, legislators decided to exclude staff salary differentials for years of employment from comparability calculations. Districts no longer have to consider how teacher quality—as evidenced by teacher salaries—varies between schools. Second, the Department started only requiring districts to report student-staff ratios instead of student-certified staff ratios, allowing districts to count paraprofessionals as full teachers. Staffs at “comparable” schools can now include widely varying numbers of actual teachers.
Beginning in 1981, during President Reagan's Administration, enforcement of the Title I comparability provision became essentially non-existent. The Department had required districts to demonstrate comparability through both staff-student and salary-student ratios. New regulations permitted districts to use staff-student or salary-student ratios, or to simply submit a written assurance (in lieu of actual data reports) that they had:
(i) a district-wide salary schedule;
(ii) a policy to ensure equivalence among schools in teachers, administrators, and other staff; and
(iii) a policy to ensure equivalence among schools in the provision of curriculum materials and instructional supplies.
Today, school districts generally use one of two main options to satisfy the Title I comparability requirement. They submit a written assurance of a comparability policy to their state or they submit a report showing comparable staff-student ratios. The Title I Monitor, an education trade publication, reported that most school districts choose to submit a report showing a comparable staff-student ratio option, with the definition of “staff” including both teachers and paraprofessionals. Other options for compliance, such as comparable salary-student ratios or comparable expenditures per student, are rarely, if ever, employed.
Impact on School Funding
School funding litigation has uncovered vast disparities in funding among school districts, but researchers have directed less attention to disparities in funding among schools within districts. Marguerite Roza and Paul Hill, professors at the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, completed the most extensive investigation of within-district spending in 2004. Four out of the five urban districts they studied spent less on schools in the highest poverty quartile than those in the lowest poverty quartile. The disparities ranged from 10 percent to 23 percent of a school’s budget.
One of the principal reasons for within-district disparities is the discrepancies in teacher salaries between low-poverty and high-poverty schools. The implementation of a district-wide salary schedule does little to level teacher spending. Highly-credentialed, experienced teachers gravitate towards lower-poverty schools as a result of: (1) better teaching conditions that give high-income schools a large pool of candidates and the luxury of selectivity; (2) staffing provisions in collective bargaining agreements that grant preference for teacher seniority; and (3) local budgeting policies that only take into account teacher allocation, not teacher spending, per school, allowing real-dollar individual school budgets to vary widely. In California, a study by Education Trust-West found that 42 of the 50 largest school districts spent less on teachers in high-poverty schools than low-poverty schools within the same district by an average of $2,576 per teacher.
The salary-student differential exemption is the main obstacle to a meaningful comparability provision. While teacher experience and education may not be perfect indicators of teacher quality, researchers generally agree that credentials and experience, and the corresponding high salaries, serve as fairly good proxies. As long as the Department allows districts this exemption, it is highly unlikely that Title I and non-Title I schools will receive comparable services (unless a court order or state policy controls teacher assignment).
In addition, the staff-student ratio is a particularly poor demonstration of comparability, because the Department allows school districts to count paraprofessionals as full staff members. A paraprofessional in a low-income school counts the same as a certified teacher with a master’s degree in a high-income school. Though NCLB prohibited paraprofessionals from providing direct instruction, comparability requirements considered paraprofessionals and full teachers as equals.
Even if ESSA's comparability provision contained more stringent requirements for teacher salaries and paraprofessionals, state enforcement is so weak that arguably few school districts would feel pressured to make significant changes. The minimum compliance requirement of school districts is simply submitting a written assurance of school-by-school comparability. The Department does not require states to support their comparability claims with data and there is no civil rights private cause of action for aggrieved parents, thus creating little opportunity for true civil rights accountability.
Andrew Brownstein and Charles Edwards, 'ED, Advocates Seek to Beef Up Comparability,' Title I Monitor, March 7, 2006
Marguerite Roza and Paul T. Hill, 'How Within-District Spending Inequities Help Some Schools to Fail,' Brookings Papers on Education Policy, 2004
M. Fetler, 'High School Staff Characteristics and Mathematics Test Results,' Education Policy Analysis Archives, 1999; R. J. Murnane and B. R. Phillips, 'Learning by Doing, Vintage and Selection: Three Pieces of the Puzzle Relating Teaching Experience and Teaching Performance,' Economics of Education Review, 1981; S. G. Rivkin, E. A. Hanushek, and J. F. Kain, 'Teachers, Schools and Academic Achievement,' 1998; National Center on Education Statistics, Monitoring School Quality: An Indicators Report, U. S. Department of Education, 2001; R. F. Ferguson and H. Ladd, 'How and Why Money Matters: An Analysis of Alabama Schools,' 1996; R. G. Ehrenberg and D. Brewer, 'Do School and Teacher Characteristics Matter? Evidence from High School and Beyond,' Economics of Education Review, 1994.