Monday, August 22, 2005

What You Don't Know About Federal Education Spending Will Hurt You

From yesterday's Washington Post comes this article, Equalizing Education Dollars, that reveals some surpising facts behind Title I education spending.

Old Title I hands remember the crisis early in the program's history when the NAACP showed that school districts were diverting Title I funds to buy band uniforms and swimming pools for nicer neighborhoods. The resulting uproar produced rules requiring school districts to spend as much on poor schools as on richer ones before Title I money was added on.

But our new research shows that abuses persist, despite the federal requirements. Now, however, the problems are driven by school districts' accounting practices and by demands from teachers unions -- not from some parents group working the system for band uniforms.

So how do school bureaucrats and labor unions screw up the system:

With labor contracts pushing salary scales that prohibit pay increases for those who take on the more challenging teaching assignments, districts can't lure their better teachers to their low-performing schools, which also tend to be the ones with children from low-income families.

So you can see that unions, despite their rhetoric about providing a quality education for everyone, are actually opposed to any incentive to improve education for poor performing schools and underserved populations--which is the purpose of Title I funds anyway.

While I am not surprised the union efforts distort the picture, here is a little gem I didn't know, which is now the subject of my review of my local school board budgets.

Some districts hide the problem by using a fixed districtwide salary average in place of each teacher's real costs. Thus, a school whose teachers are paid less than the district average is charged more for salaries than its teachers actually earn. The school is charged in the budgeting process with having a certain number of teachers at the average salary; the extra funds go to better paid teachers in other schools.

This kind of salary averaging does more than distort district spending. It can also cause districts to misallocate federal funds by overcharging for teachers paid by Title I. If these teachers earn less than the average teacher salary -- as large numbers of those working in high-poverty schools do -- the district pockets the difference between salaries paid and the district-wide average, which is the amount Title I is charged for each teacher. Thus, despite the Title I language that specifically earmarks the money to help low-income students, the federal funds get mixed into school districts' general funds. A portion of Title I funds intended for students in schools with the highest poverty levels is diverted elsewhere.

Here is where my passions for education and the law converge. Congress is due to reauthorized Title I and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 2007. With any new legislation comes a new round of rulemaking by the Department of Education. People should start now to push Congress to adopt a strict, true accounting method of teacher salaries and other expenses when determining Title I funds. Of course, the problem gets to be that the people who most need the funds are those least likely to lobby Congress and the Dept. of Ed.

Given that Congress will likely punt on this issue due to political needs to reauthorize the law, the real meat and potatoes work will be done in the regulations. Here there is some wiggle room. First, all regulations must be posted for public comment. Everyone who is interested should comment, send in your ideas, your questions, concerns anything. By law, administrative agencies like the Department of Education must review all comments and consider said comments when formulating their final regulations. We as concerned parents and citizens can make a difference. Don't just let the unions and school boards have a say!

If Congress is going to be in the business of funding and regulating education, which arguably they should not, then we need to make sure the regulations address the needs of people, not unions or school boards.

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