Ed Trust Getting Loopy Again

Education Trust has released another BIG statement about an issue that I would argue is a minor distraction – at best. At worst, this issue becomes a major policy distraction, diverting attention from far more significant equity concerns.


Education Trust’s summary bullet points for their new report are as follows:

  • Federal law permits hidden funding gaps to persist between high-poverty schools and more affluent counterparts within the same district.
  • These gaps occur partly because teachers in wealthier schools tend to earn more than their peers in high-poverty schools and because of pressure to “equalize” other resources across schools.
  • By closing loopholes in the comparability provisions of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Congress could promote funding equity within school district budgets.
  • The report is grounded in this premise:

    Many states have made progress in closing the funding gaps between affluent school districts and those serving the highest concentrations of low-income children. But a hidden funding gap between high-poverty and low-poverty schools persists between schools within the same district. District budgeting policies frequently favor schools with the fewest low-income students. This undercuts the aim of Title I and robs poor children of funds intended to help them.

    The layers of problems with this premise and Education Trust’s major conclusions are downright baffling. I am not suggesting that we should not be concerned with inequities that might occur between schools within districts, inappropriately as a function of district budgeting practices or teacher assignment practices. These are a concern. They are just not the major equity concern du jour. And further, while Title I funding might be leveraged better to correct this concern, the role of Title I funding in improving equity overall across states is minimal.

    Issue 1 – Ed Trust’s misguided perception that states have solved between-district inequities, leaving within-district inequities as the primary policy concern

    On this particular point, here is an abstract of a forthcoming peer-reviewed article and analysis which I have written (with Kevin Welner) on this topic:

    Two interlocking claims are being increasingly made around school finance: that states have largely met their obligations to resolve disparities between local public school districts and that the bulk of remaining disparities are those that persist within school districts. These local decisions are described as irrational and unfair school district practices in the allocation of resources between individual district schools. In this article, we accept the basic contention of within-district inequities. But we offer a critique of the empirical basis for the claims that within-district gaps are the dominant form of persistent disparities in school finance, finding that claims to this effect are largely based on one or a handful of deeply flawed analyses. Next, we present an empirical analysis, using national data, of 16-year trends (1990 to 2005) and recent patterns (2005 to 2007) of between-district disparities, finding that state efforts to resolve between-district disparities are generally incomplete and inadequate and that in some states, between-district disparities have actually increased over time.

    Education Trust chooses anecdotal comparisons between New York City schools in order to make their case that within-district funding disparities are the problem du jour.  Without a doubt, within district disparities persist in New York City schools, some unexplainable and many that should be remedied. I’m all for fixing illogical disparities.

    The use of New York City anecdotes to illustrate supposed major national policy concerns, in this case by authors Daria Hall and Natasha Ushomirsky piggy-backs on similar “shock” comparisons used in op-eds by Marguerite Roza – an author cited by the Hall/Ushomirsky brief. We are led to believe that this is an example of one of the greatest equity problems facing schoolchildren in the entire NY metropolitan area – if not the nation as  a whole. After all, the state of NY has done its job to fix between district disparities. Right? It’s the city that’s not pulling its weight?

    Here’s one fun example, from our forthcoming article:

    Following a state high court decision in New York mandating increased funding to New York City schools, Roza and Hill (2005) opined: “So, the real problem is not that New York City spends some $4,000 less per pupil than Westchester County, but that some schools in New York [City] spend $10,000 more per pupil than others in the same city.” That is, the state has fixed its end of the system enough.

    This statement by Roza and Hill is even more problematic when one dissects it more carefully. What they are saying is that the average of per pupil spending in suburban districts is only $4,000 greater than spending per pupil in New York City but that the difference between maximum and minimum spending across schools in New York City is about $10,000 per pupil. Note the rather misleading apples-and-oranges issue. They are comparing the average in one case to the extremes in another.

    In fact, among downstate suburban[1] New York State districts, the range of between-district differences in 2005 was an astounding $50,000 per pupil (between the small, wealthy Bridgehampton district at $69,772 and Franklin Square at $13,979). In that same year, New York City as a district spent $16,616 per pupil, while nine downstate suburban districts spent more than $26,616 (that is, more than $10,000 beyond the average for New York City). Pocantico Hills and Greenburgh, both in Westchester County (the comparison County used by Roza and Hill), spent over $30,000 per pupil in 2005.[2] These numbers dwarf even the purported $10,000 range within New York City (a range that we agree is presumptively problematic); our conclusion based on this cursory analysis is that the bigger problem likely remains the between-district disparity in funding.

    The bottom line regarding this first claim is that much of the “research” to which the new Ed Trust brief points as validating within-district disparities being the greatest problem of our day, and states largely fulfilling their objectives to improve equity, is misguided, shoddy or both. Between district disparities remain a major concern and vary widely across states.

    Issue 2: Ed Trust’s strange misperception that rich and poor kids actually attend the same school districts, such that between district inequity even could be the major equity concern du jour

    Yes, there are cases where lower poverty schools exist in generally higher poverty school districts. But as I have pointed out in other posts, for the most part, low poverty schools exist in some districts and high poverty schools in other districts. The same is true of minority student concentrations. When we start talking about leveraging Title  I aid to FIX equity problems within districts we are largely talking about redistributing resources across schools which have from 60% to 80% or higher low income children, while ignoring all of the surrounding school districts which have 0% to 60% low income kids. Here are just a few examples of the clustering of high poverty schools within districts.

    First, Chicago Public Schools. Here’s a map of the higher and lower poverty and higher and lower minority concentration schools in Chicago Public Schools and surroundings. Yes, there are some lower poverty schools in Chicago and perhaps a few (very few) with fewer minority children. But, on average reshuffling Chicago public schools resources means reshuffling them from poor to really poor schools or black to Hispanic schools, or back.

    Here are the school enrollments – weighted by number enrolled – expressed as a frequency distribution by low income student concentrations:

    You see, the vast majority of CPS kids are in high poverty schools and the majority of kids in schools outside of CPS but in the same metro area, are in low poverty schools. It’s really that simple. Yeah… there’s variation in CPS. But the greater variation is between CPS and surroundings.

    Here’s Newark, NJ:

    And here’s the frequency distribution:

    The assumption implicit in the Education Trust reports, including this brief, that higher and lower poverty schools are distributed (evenly?) across districts, that states have solved the between-district equity problem, and now districts are the ones that need to step up, seems a bit off base. No. Actually, it’s just WRONG.  On average, high poverty schools exist in high poverty districts and low poverty schools in low poverty districts. In some very large districts like NYC or CPS you can find examples of lower poverty schools in the presence of higher poverty ones. But this is not the norm.

    Issue 3: Education Trust’s untested and misguided assumption that Title I funding provides major leverage for improving school funding equity

    I don’t want to totally downplay the role of Title I funding here. It is important and quite significant for some school districts. But, the effects of Title I funding on equity – especially cross-district equity within states, are relatively small. In a forthcoming report, we lay out a methodology we use for estimating the extent to which states drive more funding (cumulative state and local revenues) to higher poverty school districts. Kevin Welner and I use a similar method in the paper cited above. I will provide a link to that paper when it is posted.

    In these graphs, I estimate a model of the relationship between state and local revenue and school district poverty rates, controlling for a variety of other cost factors (see Baker/Welner article). In a second version of the models I include Title I funding. As you can see, if a state is already providing an upward tilt (progressive with respect to poverty) to their funding, Title I modestly bumps up that tilt. But, for states with a downward tilt (regressive with respect to poverty) Title I aid doesn’t even bring it back to flat.

    Quite honestly, if there’s a loophole associated with Title I funding, it’s that states like New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania (and Arizona) have been able to use Title I aid to provide a small slice of support to poor urban and small city districts that the states themselves have chosen to neglect entirely. Now, Pennsylvania has started to make some progress on this front. But, Illinois has actually slid backwards over time, and New York made little progress following the court ruling noted above.

    In closing, I do concur with Education Trust that we should be concerned with inequities that arise for a variety of reasons across schools within large school districts.  But, overemphasizing this point creates a major distraction from the more significant disparities that persist. Actually prefacing the argument with the claim that these disparities are less important or unimportant – as this Education Trust report does – is very problematic and unfounded.

    Suggesting that Title I funding and the “comparabiltiy loophole” are the panacea for the most significant persistent disparities is just…well… LOOPY!

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