Sec. Duncan assaults comparability, says low-income schools are short changed

Pressing Congress on the need to tighten current Title I comparability requirements, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan released Wednesday survey data showing a large majority of low-income schools nationally are getting short-changed on state and local funding.

In a detailed analysis of spending data gathered from some 13,000 local educational agencies, the department found more than 40 percent of districts receiving Title I money in 2008-09 spent less state and local funds on teachers and school personnel than non-Title I schools.

The finding, which Duncan said was the first time the discrepancy could be clearly described, was made possible as a result of school-level spending reports required under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The Obama administration and some members of Congress are pushing for a change in the comparability rule largely out of concerns that schools located in lower-income neighborhoods are staffed with the lowest salaries and least experienced teachers.

The problem, Duncan acknowledged in a conference call with reporters, is that current law allows the spending disparity.

At issue is a component of the No Child Left Behind Act that prohibits an LEA from discriminatingâeither intentionally or unintentionallyâagainst its Title I schools when distributing state and local funds. Like NCLB's maintenance of effort and supplement, not supplant" requirements, the comparability rule is aimed at preventing LEAs from replacing state and local resources with federal funds.

But currently, LEAs are allowed to comply with the provision by ensuring that educational services are comparable when "taken as a whole" district wide. The administration wants the test to be made by comparing individual school spending.

"The current comparability requirement hides the inequity of funds within the same district by measuring teacher pay based on district-wide schedules - not on the actual salaries spent in these schools," said Duncan. "This current approach undermines Title I's critically important goal of providing additional resources for children living in poverty."

A rewrite of the comparability requirement has been included in pending legislation to reauthorize NCLB, co-authored by Senators Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming.

The latest version of the bill would require districts receiving Title I money to demonstrate that the combined state and local per-pupil expenditures are equal to non-Title I schools - this would include actual personnel and actual non-personnel expenditures. It includes a provision that Title I schools cannot receive less than the average combined state and local expenditure for non-Title I schools.

Meanwhile, federal officials also said Wednesday that that district administrators could take steps now address the issue -and that the cost of doing so would not be prohibitive.

According to the department, fixing comparability would cost only 1 percent to 4 percent of total school-level expenditures on average. They also argued that making a change could increase spending at Title I schools by as much as 15 percent.

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