SEATTLE — Practically every day's headlines bring new bad news about the low quality of teachers in low-income schools. At a time when teachers are in short supply almost everywhere, the poorest schools get the teachers with the least training and experience.
It's so bad, that New York City and Los Angeles are considering a tactic usually reserved for professional athletes and dotcom stars - hiring bonuses. A handful of states already offer financial incentives. New York City Chancellor Harold O. Levy has considered raiding parochial schools for teachers.
The problem is not new. The Education Trust has demonstrated that students in low-income and minority schools consistently get far less-qualified teachers than kids in wealthier neighborhoods in the same district. This is the direct consequence of a fundamental flaw in how school districts allocate teachers and funds to schools.
The problem is that senior teachers have total freedom of choice in where they work. Most of them choose to work, understandably, in the most attractive schools and neighborhoods, where the demands on teachers are least severe.
At first blush, it's hard to argue with this. Rank, after all, has its privileges. But given the importance of teacher quality, it's harder to defend procedures that systematically encourage the best teachers to head for classrooms with the fewest difficulties, leaving new and inexperienced teachers to deal with the learning needs of students with the most severe problems.
This is how it works: In order to preserve senior teachers' privileges, schools are charged the same amount for each teacher no matter what her actual salary is. Wealthy schools are free to assemble staffs made up entirely of highly paid senior teachers, but they only pay the "average" salary.
Meanwhile, schools in poor neighborhoods have to pay as much for a novice teacher just out of college as schools in more upscale neighborhoods pay for a teacher with a doctorate and 20 years of experience. Poverty-area schools inevitably wind up with the weakest teaching staffs.
This approach to budgeting contributes to the turbulence in many low-income schools. Poverty-neighborhood schools are staffed by a shifting cast of new and poorly prepared teachers. Faculties change too rapidly to pursue any sort of sustained improvement strategy.
Small wonder that every year, one-third of new teachers leave the profession. Facing the toughest school assignments, many green teachers quit because they cannot handle the pressure; others leave because they get no support and can't stand the frustration. Those who stay learn to shut themselves off in their classrooms and ignore the rest of the school.
Some districts claim to allocate disproportionate amounts of money to poverty-neighborhood schools. However, as Marguerite Roza has shown with Seattle, funding formulas that give extra weight to needy students are often a shell game. Senior teachers still cluster in the nicer neighborhoods. Poverty-area schools get extra money in the published budget, but the district charges them more for their teachers than those teachers are paid. The result is that schools in poor areas have fewer real dollars per student than the budget claims they have.
George Orwell would have understood this. So would the miners who were kept poor by the prices charged at the company store.
The federal government could fix this. Uncle Sam has had the authority to encourage a fairer allocation of dollars and teachers since the Johnson administration enacted Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965 - today an $8 billion program providing funds for low-income schools.
The authority lies in the principle of comparability, which says that federal funds may not be used to compensate for inequitable local funding of schools.
To get federal funds, districts are supposed to show that per-pupil spending is equal in all schools. Under this 35-year-old federal statute, therefore, every district receiving Title I funds while spending less per pupil in low-income neighborhoods is operating in violation of the law.
Unfortunately, the Congress and the federal Department of Education have allowed districts to ignore differences in teacher pay in calculating comparability. Body counts matter but not teacher pay or experience. Comparability, designed to ensure extra expenditures in poor schools, has been redefined (under pressure from school districts and unions) to ignore the resource that matters most.
The fact is that gross school-funding inequities within districts could be eliminated practically overnight. The president could demand new requirements measuring comparability in terms of real dollars.
School districts could have a limited period - say five years - to show that poverty-area schools had the same real-dollar per-pupil spending as other schools.
School districts could choose between changing the way they allocate teachers and dollars or doing without federal funds. The adjustment could be easy, given that half of all senior teachers will retire in the next five years.
It is hard to believe that the Democrats, so dedicated to improving education for the disadvantaged, have not already done this. President Clinton still has a chance to fix this problem. Vice President Gore is fortunate that Governor Bush did not hang this issue around his neck during the campaign. Whoever becomes our next president should act right away.
Paul T. Hill, author of 'It Takes a City: Getting Serious About Urban Education Reform' (Brookings), is a research professor at the Daniel J. Evans Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society