Things I Know 92 of 365: Bringing equity to schools will take more than an Act of Congress

A full and fair discussion is essential to democracy.

– George Soros

In my first year of teaching, my friend and colleague Darlene explained to a class of eighth grade students the difference between something being equal and something being fair. “Equal means we all get the same thing,” she said, “Fair means we all get what we need.”

Writing for the Huffington Post Thursday, Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) announced he would be introducing the Fiscal Fairness Act and the Student Bill of Rights Act to the House as a means of taking steps to provide more equitable educations to the nation’s children.

Perhaps because of that lesson from Darlene, The Fiscal Fairness Act (FFA) caught my attention.

According to Fatah, the FFA would strengthen Title I by “requiring districts (1) spend at least as much per student from state and local funds in Title I schools as non-Title I schools before receiving federal dollars, (2) count and report all school-level expenditures, including actual teacher salaries, and (3) report per-pupil expenditures and make the information available to educators, parents and community members.

According to the good folks at Ed Week, the FFA also limits the school-to-school difference in state and local funding from 10 to 3 percent.

This sounds great – on the surface.

Yes, ensuring state and local resources are being distributed equitably to all schools within a district is ensures greater access to resources for historically disadvantaged populations.

It also ensures the schools now receiving greater resources will see those resources diminished and then be asked to do as well or better by students while working with fewer resources.

Do more with less.

The spirit of Fattah’s bill, offered as an amendment to the reauthorization to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), is well-meaning. In practice, I worry it will mean robbing Peter to pay Paul.

I’m not criticizing Fattah. State and local governments should have equalized spending in Title I and non-Title I schools when the ESEA was signed. Instead, many governments looked for loopholes and made Title I a way to continue spending where they were already spending and use Title I to fill in the gaps – poorly.

It was a risky decision going against the spirit of the law if following the letter.

Fattah’s proposed amendments also bring teacher pay into the equation. Historically, resource-poor schools have had high student-to-teacher ratios and failed to attract higher paid veteran teachers. The FFA would require districts to take teacher salary (approximately four-fifths of a school’s budget) into consideration when accounting for how state and local dollars are spent. Currently, salaries aren’t part of the equation when districts report how they’re allocating funds among Title I and non-Title I schools.

The best consequence of this idea would be that districts incentivize the move of veteran teachers from resource-rich to resource-poor schools within a district. This, combined with the hiring of more teachers in resource-poor schools to reduce class sizes would result in more experienced teachers and smaller student-to-teacher ratios in historically disadvantaged schools.

In considering an idea, we must also ask its worst consequence.

It is highly doubtful state and local governments will allocate funding equivalent to what is necessary to fund the teachers that would bring all districts receiving Title I funds into compliance.

In order to equalize state and local spending, districts would more likely begin to terminate the employment of the least experienced teachers within resource-rich schools. This would increase student-to-teacher ratios to levels comparable to resource-poor schools.

Not only that, it would prevent collaboration between experienced veteran teachers who have spent years amassing wisdom in the classroom and younger teachers who have often been most recently trained in new teaching practices as well.

Fattah’s proposed bill (along with Sens. Michael Bennett (D-CO) and Thad Cochran’s (R-MS) companion bill in the Senate) must be measured so as not to become an unfolding mandate that weakens educational quality.

American education requires a system that brings equity to funding and improves the education and learning of all students. The Fiscal Fairness Act may make things equal, but it doesn’t make them fair.

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