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Data Nerd Alert: New Comparability Stats Coming

In late winter, researchers, wonks, and the general public will get their first look at new finance data collected by the U.S. Department of Education that seeks to account for differences in spending across schools within the same district. This is called comparability (until someone comes up with a catchier name!) and often exposes spending patterns that lead to fewer dollars being spent on low-income students because so much money is tied to teacher salaries—and the less-experienced teachers earning lower salaries tend to teach in schools with a lot of low-income kids.

You would think that obtaining school-by-school finance data would be easy. It's not. And while there's a lot of attention paid to K-12 spending across states, or even across districts within the same state, it's much less clear what's happening to school spending across schools within the same district.

California has tried to shine a light on this by enacting its own school-by-school finance data collection requirements years before the feds did as part of the Title I economic-stimulus funding and now part of new civil rights reporting requirements.

And California's experience perhaps foreshadows what we'll see in this new federal data set. According to two new reports released today by the Center for American Progress, the data on school-by-school spending is discouraging, and it's messy.

Raegen T. Miller's "Comparable, Schmomparable" report found that a 10 percentage-point increase in poverty was related to a $411 drop in average teacher salary. This raises equity issues about whether kids in poverty are getting short shrift. Miller is the Center's associate director for education research.

The bottom line, says Cynthia Brown, the Center's vice president for education policy, is that "most people think poor kids get extra money, and they don't."

A second report by California school finance experts and attorneys John Affeldt and Guillermo Mayer found that implementing the data collection procedures was more difficult than getting them on the books in the first place. This hints at the challenges ahead as people try to make sense of new federal data. As one example, school districts often had varying ways of determining just how much and where money is spent by schools. (Examples: Is a librarian's salary categorized under instruction, or student support services? How should custodial staff that rotate among schools be counted?)

To help shine a light on these issues nationwide, the U.S. Department of Education has embedded school finance and comparability data into its biennial civil rights data collection survey, which is administered to a sample of districts across the country. The survey information and data will be out early next year, said Russlynn Ali, the assistant secretary for civil rights. She hopes to turn this data collection into an annual one of all districts. A report from a second data set, due around May 2011, will center on the requirements in the economic-stimulus package to collect comparability data for recipients of Title I stimulus funds. This is a temporary reporting requirement, so that's why the department wove the same data questions into its ongoing civil rights survey.

Once the federal data comes out, it will be important to make sense of it all—and then figure out how the new information informs policy. (UPDATE: To help you make sense of this issue, check out this post on Teacher Beat.) For their part, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his crew want to close the "comparability loophole" that accompanies Title I funds during ESEA reauthorization, ensuring that those additional federal funds directed at low-income kids actually are spent on low-income kids. Although Ali said she's hopeful Congress will agree, she also acknowledged it will require some "heavy lifting" to get it done.

The important questions, she said, are "Is it OK that we spend less on students that need more? If not, how are we going to get them..at least their fair share?"

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