Why equal education funding isn't as easy as apple pie

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When a judge in February ordered New York State to spend an extra $5.6 billion to bring New York City school funding up to the level of surrounding counties, he left a question unanswered: How much difference will all those billions make for children in failing schools?

Unfortunately, based on studies of spending patterns in New York and other big-city school systems, the answer is "not much."

That's because of the dark secret that our research has uncovered: Some big-city schools get plenty of money. We have studied actual spending on every school in six big urban districts. Knowing that districts' official budgets ignore many factors that drive spending - for example, differences in the salaries paid teachers in one school versus another, or differences in the services particular schools get from the central office - we followed every dollar.

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This work reveals that per-pupil spending can be more than twice as high in one school than in another just across town.

We found that per-pupil spending differences between high schools within Seattle, Denver, and Baltimore, for example, are greater than between the highest and lowest spending districts in their respective states.

What is it that sets apart well-funded schools?

Their principals know how to tap into the roughly 50 percent of school funds controlled by the central district budgets. And their student demographic tends to appeal to veteran teachers with the highest salaries. The rest of the schools get much less money, because they get a smaller chunk of central budgets and are able to attract only the less experienced and lower-paid teachers.

So, the real problem is not that New York City spends some $4,000 less per pupil than Westchester County, but that some schools in New York spend $10,000 more per pupil than others in the same city.

And these spending disparities aren't particularly strategic. Certainly, some pots of money are intended for poor kids, but lots of others tip the scales toward more advantaged schools.

Money for centrally controlled services (teachers who move among schools delivering specialized services, bilingual specialists, health providers) is spent virtually willy-nilly, depending on downtown administrators' habits and professional contacts. Funds for these purposes are not accounted for on a per-day or per-school basis. Consequently nobody - not principals and surely not superintendents and school board members - knows how these funds are distributed.

The most important input, teacher salaries, is distributed perversely, as senior teachers take advantage of their placement rights to cluster in the nicer neighborhoods, leaving schools in impoverished neighborhoods with less-qualified teachers who have no choice about where they work.

Nothing in the New York court order weakens the forces that lavish some schools with resources and starve others. Teachers will still prefer working in wealthier schools. The newest and least qualified teachers still will be left in the toughest schools, just as the students in those schools will be left with them.

The real drivers of inequity are hidden, and the people who most benefit from them - middle-class parents in nicer neighborhoods, senior teachers, and the union that works in their interest - benefit from keeping them off the table.

To remedy big-city school inequities, leaders have to acknowledge that shortchanging the poorest schools is wired into the system. And they need to make sure the wiring is pulled out.

This requires real accounting for central office costs and the transparent allocation of funds to favor poor schools. Plaintiffs and judges also need to open their eyes to the realities that drive the distribution of teachers, teacher quality, and salaries.

Teachers should get cash incentives to teach in challenging schools, a no-no under most collective bargaining agreements. Eliminating salary averaging - and instead giving schools real-dollar budgets based on enrollment - would put a lot more money in schools in impoverished neighborhoods, which they could use to offer higher salaries, reduce class size, or buy new technology.

These actions might make some sense of a court order that is now virtually certain to change nothing.

No policy can work if the people making decisions follow the Wizard of Oz's instruction to pay no attention to what's behind the curtain.

Marguerite Roza and Paul Hill are researchers at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington, Seattle.

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