Focus on equity in states’ funding

Through incentive grants and tougher regulations, the federal Department of Education is considering a more muscular approach to pushing states to make  funding more equitable for poor and minority children.

For now, it will wait on recommendations of the 27-member Equity and Excellence Commission, which held the first of several nationwide hearings last week in San Jose. But Russlynn Ali, the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education, indicated at the hearing, and more explicitly in an interview afterward, that she and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan clearly have some ideas in mind. These ideas include creating competitive, Race to the Top-like grants for districts and states to change their funding methods and setting new conditions, in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, for the receipt of Title I dollars.

“It is through things like competitive dollars and preconditions as we saw in Race to the Top that we also might incent behavior in states and get folks to do the right thing,” Ali told me.

Education funding is and will remain primarily a state responsibility. The federal government funds about 8 cents on a dollar of K-12 funding, mainly for children with disabilities and low-income children. And the dozens of state suits over funding equity have been filed in state courts since the U.S. Supreme court ruled 40 years ago that there is no fundamental right to an education under the U.S. Constitution.

That’s not to say the federal government couldn’t use more leverage. John Affeldt, lead attorney for Public Advocates, which is currently suing the state on behalf  of low-income students over inadequate school funding, fully endorsed Ali’s ideas as one of three speakers at the hearing.

Noting that the federal government sends $5 billion to California for schools (not including the extra $5 billion in stimulus money), Affeldt said, “The feds are standing by watching while California is racing to the bottom” in education spending while permitting huge disparities between property-rich towns like Woodside, which fund their schools primarily through property taxes, and next-door Redwood City, whose state per-student funding is less than half of Woodside’s. (Most districts’ basic levels of state funding per student are within several hundred dollars of one another.)

“There needs to be a condition of getting federal money that states over time equalize spending,” Affeldt said. “Beyond that, there needs to be a recognition that English learners and low-income children need more. There should be equity, not parity.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Commission on Education Excellence recommended the adoption of a weighted student formula that would provide more than 20 percent extra dollars for English learners and poor kids. Gov. Jerry Brown has endorsed the concept. Assembly Education Chairwoman Julia Brownley is sponsoring a bill (AB 18) to create a weighted student formula. But legislators are counting on substantial new money to fund it – something that could take decades to implement without a prod from the feds.

More scrutiny on teacher distribution

Beyond differences in funding level among districts in a state, there are the less visible, often hidden, differences in funding of schools within districts. Because teachers’ salaries comprise up to 80 percent of a school’s budget,** and veteran teachers, who make more money, tend to transfer to more stable, middle-class schools, schools with poor kids end up getting substantially less money. But for budgeting purposes – and for reporting to the feds – districts use the average salary cost of a teacher. Ali and Affeldt argue that Title I money is then used to replace, not supplement, district funding for poor kids. This is what’s known as the “comparability loophole,” and the Obama administration’s blueprint for revising the Elementary and Secondary Education Act calls for closing it by using actual school budget data, with real teachers’ salaries.

A few districts – notably New York, Baltimore, and Montgomery County (Maryland) – have switched to “backpack funding,” in which extra money follows low-income students, so poor schools get more money. Oakland Unified, under a state administrator, converted to this, too. Jason Willis, former budget director in Oakland and now CFO for Stockton Unified, attributed the switch to “results-based budgeting” to at least partially explaining why the increase in Oakland’s test scores was among the highest in the state for the past six years.  The increase in money was accompanied by a shift in decision making to the school level – an important factor, he said.

It’s this type of funding experiments in  Oakland or variations of it now under way in Los Angeles, Twin Rivers and Pasadena Unified, that could attract federal money in a competitive grant.

Affeldt said he wants the Obama administration to shift focus from school-level reforms and “teacher bashing” to how the flow of dollars affects teacher turnover and learning opportunities.

Tale of two school districts

The three Commissioners in attendance heard stark examples in the testimony of Martha Infante, a middle school history teacher in South Central Los Angeles. “Staffing has been a constant issue in schools like mine because of difficult working conditions,” she said, “and the depth of social, emotional, and economic problems that my students face.  These conditions have been known to defeat even the most valiant of educators because all workers like to believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Contrast that with the remarks of David B. Cohen, an English teacher at Palo Alto High, who spoke to the commissioners earlier in the day.

“Our district (Palo Alto Unified) attracts a broad applicant pool by offering an environment in which people want to work, and where teachers also earn 15-20 percent more than we would in many nearby districts,” Cohen said in prepared testimony.  “We often hire experienced teachers away from those other districts, and we haven’t endured any layoffs in these troubled years.  It’s clearly inequitable that we’re building our stability off of the instability of other districts.”

Together, this tale of two schools makes a good read.

Five Californians have been named to the Commission, which U.S. Rep. Mike Honda, a Democrat from San Jose, was instrumental in establishing (hence the first stop in his hometown). Christopher Edley, dean of UC Berkeley Law School, and Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, co-chair it. Eric Hanushek, researcher at the Hoover Institution; Linda Darling- Hammond,  professor of education at Stanford, and Tino Cuellar, a professor of law at Stanford and Obama administration adviser, are members. Both Darling-Hammond and Cuellar attended the San Jose event.

Stating why the Commission is important, Cuellar told the 100-plus attendees, “The American promise is simple: We don’t guarantee success but we do promise a fair chance to succeed; once we lose it (the promise), it will be hard to get it back,” he said. “If someone in the Imperial Valley is not learning how to read, it is our problem.”

** Correction:TOP-Ed Contributor Stephen Blum reminds me that salaries do comprise 80-85 percent of a school budget, but it’s split two-thirds to teachers and one-third to administrators and classified staff.

This entry was posted in Achievement Gap, Equity issues on by .

About John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (, one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

4 thoughts on “Focus on equity in states’ funding

  1. John S. Leyba

    John, nice piece.
    First, the link to Ms Infante’s comments should have the “extension” at the end of the file (.rtf) as Mr Cohen’s comments do. In my browser (Chrome) it came up as a mess until I saved the file and then changed the file name extension on the desktop.
    Second, focusing on EQUITY and ACCESS is exactly what the feds should be doing. You know that I believe most layers of government fail when they try to do other layers’ jobs, so I am no fan of the federal Dept of Education — something that I believe is inherently local and best served by local agencies. However, the clear “exception” for federal involvement, going back decades, is to ensure fairness at a national level and essentially police the states’ provision of public education. We are a long way from governors standing in doorways, thankfully, but in many downtrodden communities it’s hard to even get students THROUGH the doorways. Kudos to anyone working to solve these problems.

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  2. GeorgeHuff

    There needs to be EQUITY in IDENTIFICATION/ACCESS  of:
    1. Poor=low income
    Title 1 money has been a boon to districts and to fund specialists to help administrators. What other avenues of identification do districts use, other than encouraging applications to the free lunch program? Are there any districts who give oversight to those applications?  Should the process be regulated?
    2. Special Ed
    Once an over represented minorities status happens in a district, children of this ethnicity are not identified as readily as others, unless pressured to do so as an immediate need, or by parent application. Again, there should be standardized or equitable access.

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  3. Eric Premack

    If the feds gave a damn about equity, they could first take a meat axe to the massive snarl of red tape that ensnares all federal funding programs (except “impact aid” and “forest reserve” funding).  Then they could examine the equity (or lack thereof) of their own funding formulae.
    The absurd tangle of red tape ensures that only a fraction of federal funds are actually available to serve poor kids.  A large fraction is instead spent on completing forms, engaging in compliance reviews, filling-out dozens of pages of plans for each school and district, reviewing 200-item lists of conditions, engaging in complex financial and payroll accounting, calculating and setting-aside interest payments (despite the fact that interest rates are nearly zero), sending  incoherent notices to parents that somehow protect their “rights,” gauging school and district performance through an Orwellian index called “Adequate Yearly Progress,” implementing pointless interventions in the schools ID’d through the Orwellian indices, preparing for and implementing complex “Categorical Programs Monitoring” inspections/reviews, preparing and contracting for expensive external audits, etc., etc.  Whether the $5 billion that the feds provide to California each year is worth the price in red tape is not at all clear–many regard the funding as the fiscal equivalent of crack cocaine.  We can’t afford to take it, and we can’t afford not to.
    Second, the feds could take a look at the equity of the formulas that they use to distribute Title I and other federal education funds.  These formulas are very inequitable.  They include so-called “hold harmless” formulas that ensure that growing districts (e.g., districts that serve large and growing populations of poor kids) get less funding per needy student than districts that no longer serve large numbers of such students.  They also substantially base federal funding on the overall level of spending on K-12 education in a given state–a huge boon to East Coast states that spend heavily and a factor that screws needy kids in California.
    Though Ali and Duncan are smart and well-intended folk, they’re really missing the boat here and drip with hypocrisy.

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