The Comparability Distraction & the Real Funding Equity Issue

Yesterday, the US Department of Education released a new report addressing how districts qualified for Title I funds (higher poverty districts) often allocate resources across their schools inequitably, arguing that requirements for receiving Title I funds should be strengthened.

The report is here:

Related resources here:

It is certainly problematic that many public school districts have far from predictable, far from logical and far from equitable formulas for distributing resources across their schools. This is a problem which should be addressed. And improving comparability provisions for receipt of Title I funding is an appropriate step to take in this regard.

However, it is critically important to understand that improving within district comparability of resources across schools is only a very small piece of a much larger equity puzzle. It’s a drop in the bucket. Perhaps an important drop, but not one that will even come close to resolving the major equity issues that plague public education systems today.

I have written on this topic previously both on this blog and in peer reviewed publications:

  • Baker, B. D., & Welner, K. G. (2010). “Premature celebrations: The persistence of interdistrict funding disparities” Educational Policy Analysis Archives, 18(9). Retrieved [date] from
  • B. D. (2009). Within-district resource allocation and the marginal costs of
    providing equal educational opportunity: Evidence from Texas and Ohio. Education Policy
    Analysis Archives, 17(3). Retrieved [date] from
  • Baker, B.D. Re-arranging deck chairs in Dallas: Contextual constraints on within district resource allocation in large urban Texas school districts. DeckChairsinDallas.Baker (forthcoming in Journal of Education Finance)

Among other things, I have pointed out on this blog that one reason why focusing on within district disparities between “rich and poor” schools is misguided is because most of the disparities in wealth among families and children occur across district lines rather than within district boundaries. (2nd major point in post)

The new U.S. Dept. of Ed. report reinforces this overemphasis on within district disparity, ignoring entirely between district disparity. In part, it is perhaps a more politically convenient argument to point blame at local school district officials, rather than states, for not doing their part to improve equity across schools. Local school officials make good targets, but it’s harder to pick on states & state legislatures.

Here’s one way in which the USDOE report casts the disparities:

The report compares the number of Title I (higher poverty) schools that have lower per pupil spending than non-Title I schools in the same district.  This becomes fodder for the news headlines. And I would argue, fuels public distraction from the bigger inequities.

Now, there are a multitude of methodological quibbles I have with this analysis. First, it compares only the average spending of Title I and non-Title I schools within districts, without consideration for other factors which frequently serve as strong predictors of different school site spending across schools within districts (primarily, concentrations of children with disabilities, and district choices to locate specific programs in specific schools). Poverty is one factor – and a very important one at that – but it’s also important to look across the full range of poverty concentration across schools in a district, rather than just splitting schools into Title I and non-Title I. The Deck Chairs in Dallas article above provides examples of the steps one should take to evaluate equity in spending across schools within districts. So too does this article:

But, let’s take a look at the more important issue that is missed entirely in the myopic focus on within district disparities and “blame the local districts” approach to school funding equity.

First stop, Philadelphia. This first graph shows the box plot of elementary school spending per pupil from the data set used in the USDOE report (nice new data to play with!) Philadelphia city elementary schools simply have far less than elementary schools in surrounding districts (in Pennsylvania). THIS IS THE MAJOR EQUITY CONCERN!  Here’s how these funding differences play out along a continuum of all schools in the metro (within PA) with respect to students qualified for free or reduced price lunch:

Philadelphia schools are in Red. Indeed, the pattern of spending per pupil with respect to % free or reduced price lunch is not what I would want/expect to see across schools within Philadelphia. It actually appears somewhat regressive. That is, higher poverty schools within Philadelphia having marginally lower spending per pupil than lower poverty ones. But, there may be some other factors at play (such as special education population distributions) which complicate the interpretation of this relationship. But, we also see that:

  1. the majority of Philadelphia elementary schools have near or over 80% free or reduced price lunch
  2. the majority of schools in this picture that are over 80% free or reduced price lunch are Philadelphia schools
  3. Philadelphia schools have systematically fewer per pupil resources than those of surrounding districts
  4. the majority of other schools in the metro area have fewer than 40% free or reduced price lunch
  5. these much lower poverty schools IN OTHER DISTRICTS have higher average spending.

These are the districts with which Philadelphia must compete to recruit and retain a sufficient quantity of high quality teachers. And it’s clearly a losing battle.

Focusing only on the disparities inside Philadelphia, bringing the comparability hammer down on Philadelphia does little to resolve the bigger funding equity issues that are a function of neglect by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, not the city of Philadelphia.

Not all metro areas look this bad. In many cases, central cities are on average or slightly above average for their metro areas. But arguably, not “enough” above average that they have wide latitude to reshuffle their resources aggressively to their higher poverty schools. Note that if Philadelphia did strive to create a strong progressive distribution of resources toward higher poverty schools, all other schools in the district would be left with next to nothing – at least relative to their surroundings. This is the very “deck chairs” issue I discuss in my paper on Dallas (well, actually on Texas as a whole).

It also turns out that many smaller cities, and very poor inner urban fringe areas (with particularly weak tax base) are often as disadvantaged or much more disadvantaged than the urban core. Places we don’t always hear about. Here’s one of my favorite small city examples, Utica, NY:

Utica City elementary schools (1 in Box Plot) have much lower average per pupil spending than elementary schools in surrounding districts.Here’s the scatterplot with respect to % free or reduced price lunch:

Like Philadelphia, there appear to be inequities in resources across Utica City elementary schools. But again, most Utica City elementary schools have over 80% free or reduced price lunch and spend less per pupil than most elementary schools in surrounding districts, many of which are not wealthy districts by any stretch of the imagination. They’re just not as poor as Utica itself. Here’s a little more backdrop on the position of Utica among NY State school districts.

While it is important, and relevant to consider ways to tighten regulations on Title I districts to require that they are allocating resources equitably across schools within their boundaries, we cannot and should not let the emphasis on Title I and Comparability distract us from the bigger equity issues – the harder equity issues to resolve.  While it’s politically convenient to blame local bureaucrats (those overpaid fat cats in large city school district central offices) we must also maintain pressure on states to do the right thing, and ensure that these districts have the resources they need in order to distribute them equitably.

see also:


5 thoughts on “The Comparability Distraction & the Real Funding Equity Issue

  1. Bruce: what is the underlying political motivation behind this repeated refrain from the corporate reformers — like Roza of Gates and CAP, who love to focus on intra-district disparities? You write, “local school officials make good targets, but it’s harder to pick on states & state legislatures.” there must be something more to say about this… thanks!

    1. For one, I think it is just politically more convenient to attack local public district administrators. This may be partly because it can be framed as non-partisan, since local public district administrators aren’t party affiliated elected leaders. So, that may be part of it. But, I also think that it’s easiest for organizations like Gates, CAP or whoever to set up “revenue neutral” or “tax policy neutral” reform ideas- the old “it’s not about how much money there is, but how you use it.”

      While I agree that there are many things we should be looking at in these terms, we cannot ignore the “how much” and “who has the money” questions. New York State and the current NY rhetoric provide great examples. Gov. Cuomo has latched on to the claim that NY spends more than most other states per pupil, therefore there is plainly and obviously enough money in the system in NY to get the job done. However, the fact that affluent Westchester and Long Island districts spend more than districts in most places around the country is not particularly helpful to Utica or Poughkeepsie, unless, of course, the governor is willing to redistribute some of that funding across district lines. In NY, much could be accomplished simply by redistributing the state aid that is being allocated to affluent districts (via adjustments within the foundation formula and via changes to STAR).

      Now, I believe that we may begin to see some more interest in these persistent between district disparities, and that groups like CAP in particular may be on board with that. More on that at a later point. But it is hard for any of these politically involved beltway organizations (casting themselves as centrist) to take a stand that speaks to tax policy (specifically the possibility of tax increases) or redistributive policy (for some reason, within district budget allocation is not treated as “redistribution” in the same sense, politically?). Arguably, however, not taking a stand on these issues is, in fact, taking a stand (as in Bill Gates “Turn the Curve Upside Down” talk).

      I also think that much of the beltway rhetoric around this stuff was disproportionately influenced by a pile of shoddy “research” constructed largely by a few individuals. Meanwhile, the rest of us in the field weren’t looking. The article above which I wrote with Kevin Welner addresses these issues. Many in the field of school finance just didn’t take it seriously, because we knew otherwise (who would really say that between district disparities aren’t important, and within district disparities are the central issue?), and we blew it off. We, who study school finance policy also tend to focus our efforts on the states – and state and local revenue issues – and haven’t really participated in the beltway conversations about Title I and Comparability. Federal money is a small piece of the pie, with marginal influence on the overall equity or adequacy of school funding.

      So, while there may be some political motivations – some political conveniences – the current status of the policy debate over funding disparities is also unduly influenced by, well, not the best work in the field. I do believe that some of these conversations have begun to shift. But there will likely be some lag before any of that shows up in public discourse, just as there was a lag in the shift toward the current state of things.

  2. Ms. Haimson asked, “…what is the underlying political motivation behind this repeated refrain from the corporate reformers — like Roza of Gates and CAP, who love to focus on intra-district disparities ”

    The motive is to discredit public schools’ ability to run themselves. An influential, self-appointed education expert, Marc Tucker, advises that public schools should be run by professionals – meaning outsourcing, arranged by the state, not local school boards. The reason given is that locals are more susceptible to graft:

  3. Looking at the chart, I’m underwhelmed by even the major claim. 46% of Title 1 schools were below average in per-pupil personnel costs? Am I reading this wrong? Less than half are below average. What number did they want to see?

    1. Not sure I see what your talking about here. These graphs look at specific locations, pointing out that the big equity issues aren’t typically “within district” issues. Clearly there are some within district equity concerns in Philadelphia or in Utica, but the differences between Philly and its surroundings or Utica and its surroundings are a bigger deal.

      As for the Dept’s analysis – I have issues with it on multiple levels. First, why simply count the number of Title I schools that have less than non-Title I schools, even if in some cases it’s $1 less and if the difference in poverty between the Title I and non-Title I schools in a poor city is small. Further, there may be many reasons why some non-Title I schools appear to spend more than some Title I schools, most notably, district’s choices of where to concentrate certain special education programs/services. There is no accounting for this at all.

      Yes, within district equity is a concern. It should be reigned in. I should note that expansion of charter schools in cities actually exacerbates inequity (more on that later). Between district inequities are a much bigger issue. This USDOE study really doesn’t shed light on much.

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