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Are Latino and Black Students Shortchanged on Per-Pupil Spending?

Schools with large enrollments of minority kids often fall short on state and local spending to support teaching and learning for a variety of well-known reasons: the strong correlation between poverty and minority communities, the tendency for such children to live in communities where school revenue generated from property taxes is less robust, and because of differences in the salaries of teachers who work in high-minority schools.

A new report published this week by the Center for American Progress offers a more concrete answers to how much less is spent on students of color compared to their white peers and why, even with what is supposed to be a built-in safeguard in federal law to even out uneven spending patterns, expenditures can be so lopsided, even among schools in the same district.

Ary Spatig-Amerikaner, who wrote the analysis as part of her graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley, used a source of education spending data that was required from districts that received economic stimulus funds in the 2009 American Reinvestment or Recovery Act. The school-level data from 2008-09 includes actual spending on teacher salaries. More on that in a moment.

First, Spatig-Amerikaner found that public schools spend, on average, $334 more on white students than on nonwhite students. That per-pupil spending disparity, when compared between schools that are mostly white and those that are comprised mostly of nonwhite students, is even more stark. In schools where 90 percent or more of students were white, per-pupil spending was $733 more than in schools where more than 90 percent of students were nonwhite. Roughly one-third of the students who are represented in the national data set attend such racially segregated schools, according to the report.

Now, why are the expenditures so out of whack, especially when federal Title I money is flowing into high-poverty, high-minority schools for the express purpose of trying to level the playing field between schools in affluent communities and those in low-income ones?

The answer, Spatig-Amerikaner contends, is largely linked to teacher salaries and the comparatively lower pay that new teachers earn. And those less experienced teachers tend to begin their careers in high-needs schools serving minority students. That's hardly a bombshell finding. What's more compelling is that Spatig-Amerikaner pinpoints Title I itself to be a major culprit because of what is referred to by wonky insiders as the "comparability" loophole. As a condition for receiving Title I dollars, districts have to promise to provide the same level of educational services to their poor schools as they do to lower-poverty schools. To prove that, districts report teachers' salary schedules, rather than the actual salaries that individual teachers earn, which many argue provides a misleading picture. (for a fuller airing of this complicated issue, see Politics K-12 blogger Alyson Klein's smart explanation of comparability.)

Changing that reporting requirement, she argues, would expose the inequitable spending within districts and force them to even out where the money is going. Spatig-Amerikaner is not the first argue that the comparability loophole needs to be closed, but her findings will certainly bolster the position of those who've been pushing for it for a long time.

The U.S. Department of Education did its own analysis on the ARRA school expenditure data and also found large patterns of inequity between poor schools and more affluent schools. And Education Secretary Arne Duncan also called for fixing the loophole in Title I.


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