NO ACCOUNTING FOR FAIRNESS: Additional federal and state funds intended for Ohio's low-income students often don't reach the state's highest poverty schools

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Publication date: 
December 22 2008 (All day)

In Some Schools, These Inequities Can Mean a Difference of Tens of Thousands, and Sometimes Hundreds of Thousands, of Dollars Every Year

WASHINGTON (December 22, 2008) – Additional funding for Ohio’s low-income students often fails to reach the highest poverty schools, undermining policymakers’ efforts to boost student achievement through additional federal and state investments, according to a report released today by The Education Trust.

No Accounting for Fairness examines funding patterns in the state’s 14 largest school systems by looking at publicly available school-level expenditure data on teacher salaries, which typically accounts for 80 to 90 percent of elementary school budgets. The analysis found that expenditures on teacher salaries during the 2007-2008 year vary dramatically between elementary schools within the same district.

Though Ohio school districts get additional funding for low-income children, only three of the largest 14 districts (Dublin, Lakota, and Parma) have higher average teacher salaries in their highest-poverty schools than in their more affluent schools. In the remaining 11 districts (Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Hilliard, Olentangy, South-Western, Toledo, and Westerville), average salaries were lower in schools serving the highest concentration of students from low-income families.

For example, teachers in the highest poverty elementary schools in Akron were paid an average of $4,919 less than their counterparts in the city’s schools serving the fewest low-income students. In Columbus, the comparable figure was $1,509 less for teachers in the highest poverty elementary schools.

“Common sense and basic fairness tell us that schools educating low-income students need significantly more—and certainly not less—if we expect them to reach the same high standards and achievement levels as children who have more resources at home,” said Ross Wiener, vice president of The Education Trust and author of the report. “When districts dilute the extra state and federal funding intended to help poor kids, students don’t get the supports they need to reach high levels of achievement.”

The Education Trust also looked beyond teacher salary averages to examine how this affected per-student spending on salaries. While low-income students generate significant state and federal dollars to augment their educational opportunities, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dayton, and Olentangy actually spent less per pupil on teacher salaries in their highest poverty schools than in their more affluent schools. But even in districts that spent slightly more per pupil, those additional amounts were minimal in comparison to the extra federal and state aid that their low-income students generated for the districts.

These disparities in teacher spending can have an enormous impact on a school’s budget. For example, if Cleveland spent the same amount per pupil on teacher salaries at Clark Elementary School as it does in its lowest poverty schools, Clark would receive more than $566,250 more funding per year—money that could go a long way to improving the quality of instruction in the school.

Often, these within-district spending inequities result from long-standing budget and teacher compensation practices. School districts typically allocate staff positions to each school, rather than providing them with an actual salary budget. Because the highest-paid teachers are usually concentrated in the lowest poverty schools, those schools get more than their share of the district’s teacher salary budget, and low-income schools get less.

In recent years, officials in Ohio have worked hard to equalize spending between school districts in the state. But the state has yet to tackle the problem of inequitable funding within school districts, and that—it turns out—can undercut the good intentions of legislators to equalize funding between districts.

Unless elected officials and educators squarely address this baseline problem, Ohio will continue to face challenges in closing achievement gaps that separate low-income students from their more affluent peers, undermining other steps the state may take in the name of boosting achievement in high-poverty schools. 

The Education Trust recommends that the state adopt two complementary strategies to promote funding fairness at the school level. First, districts should be required to report school-level expenses to the state, creating a system that provides both transparency and comparability between schools and districts. And second, the state should enlist school districts as partners in pursuing fiscal equity, moving as rapidly as possible to fair funding of schools based upon student need.

“Local education leaders must resolve these inequities among their schools. They shouldn’t sit back and wait for state officials to force them to adopt fair student funding practices,” said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust. “But neither should state leaders wait indefinitely for districts to address these issues. Our most vulnerable students simply can’t afford another year of delay. This is, in the end, an issue of fundamental fairness.”