Media coverage has framed the debate in stark terms, with those who care about civil rights and poor children on the side of the Education Department opposed by the strange bedfellows of Senate Republicans protesting executive overreach, teachers’ unions who want to protect seniority-based pay-scales and tenure, and state and district leaders seeking to avoid the administrative hassle of overhauling their budgeting and staffing. What's missing from the story is a deeper dive into what steps districts might have to take to meet the Education Department’s proposed rule, and how those actions could negatively affect school quality for the very students the rule aims to help.
As mandated by the law, the department conducted negotiated rulemaking this spring, where education administrators, school leaders and teachers, and civil-rights groups attempted to hash out implementation of the new “supplement not supplant” rule. The department proposed requiring school districts to spend at least as much in each Title I school (those with high percentages of poor students) as they do on average in their non-Title I schools—and to require these calculations in actual dollars, rather than in staffing allocations. In other words, instead of districts being able to show that every school received one teacher for, say, 25 students, they would have to show that the actual dollar amount going to the schools is the same.
Ultimately negotiators could not reach a consensus, so the department will write the rule itself, and is expected to submit a draft rule for Congressional comment soon. A department official wrote in an email that the department views the proposed rule as essential to overcoming local funding disparities it views as undermining "the intent of federal title I dollars, which are supposed to provide supplemental resources for high poverty schools, not to fill in shortfalls in state and local funding."
On the surface, the proposed rule sounds like a win for poor kids. As my Georgetown University colleague Marguerite Roza shows in an Education Trust report, school districts often spend fewer dollars per pupil in their higher-poverty schools. The rule aims to end this pattern. However, the practical and policy implications are far less straightforward than they first appear.
Most districts use complex methodologies to assign staff positions—not dollars—to schools. Using this kind of staffing methodology, a certain number of students will generate a teacher, another number will generate a counselor, and so on. Districts sometimes account for student disadvantage in these processes, awarding more staff positions if a school has more students who are poor, in special education, or speak limited English.
When it comes to salaries for these positions, districts typically pay staff based on their years of experience. Because teacher turnover is higher on average in poorer schools, these schools usually have higher shares of new teachers who are paid less. Poorer schools therefore on average spend fewer dollars per pupil, even if they have more teachers and smaller classes.