March 4, 2005

California school districts shortchange students of color

A new report released Tuesday by the Education Trust-West identifies for the first time huge per-pupil spending gaps in California public schools currently masked by the state’s accounting methods. The report finds that money spent on teacher salaries, which make up the lion’s share of education dollars, varies widely from school to school within districts.

According to the report, “California’s Hidden Teacher Spending Gap: How State and District Budgeting Practices Shortchange Poor and Minority Students and Their Schools,” the hidden funding gaps are primarily driven by significant discrepancies in teachers’ salaries between schools within the same district that serve a high percentage of poor and minority students and those serving higher-income and white students.

“What we don’t know can – and is – hurting us,” said Russlynn Ali, executive director of the Education Trust-West. “The state’s current methodology in calculating school expenditures masks huge gaps in per-pupil spending within California’s school districts. This blind spot is especially troubling given the importance of quality instruction at a time when federal and state policies are increasingly pushing for all students to achieve high academic standards.”

Public Advocates Managing Attorney John Affeldt has been one of the lead counsel for plaintiffs and the attorney responsible for addressing issues of teacher quality disparities in Williams v. California, the statewide, educational equity class action settled with Gov. Schwarzenegger last August.

“We’ve known for years that poor and minority students receive the lowest quality teachers and have the lowest test scores,” Affeldt said in response to the Education Trust-West report. “For the first time we see how shocking an under-investment in instructional dollars the teacher gap means for the neediest students.

“Teachers are the most important factor in improving student learning. We can hardly expect low-performing students to tackle California’s world-class standards without ensuring all students have effective, experienced teachers.

“As part of the Williams settlement,” Affeldt noted, “the state committed to providing all students ‘highly qualified’ teachers by the end of the 2006 school year. This report confirms that a systemic response is needed to create the environments at low-performing schools to attract and retain high quality teachers.”

The report’s findings make a strong case for the importance of measuring school-level data on teacher salary and distributing quality teachers equitably. Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) are two districts that have developed strategies that begin to address the inequitable distribution of teaching resources.

LAUSD has been implementing a plan to place more experienced teachers in their higher poverty schools and provide additional professional development to new teachers in those schools. In fact, teachers in LAUSD high poverty schools actually earn more than the average teacher in the district.

Oakland has implemented “Results Based Budgeting,” wherein funding is allocated to schools based on the number and type of students, and school budgets incorporate the actual cost of staff members’ salaries, rather than the district average.

Though some school districts have made concerted efforts to address the problem of inequitable distribution of teaching resources, many districts have a long way to go in ensuring that such resources are fairly distributed. “Despite consensus that California needs to do more to close student achievement gaps, the reality often does not match the rhetoric when it comes to teacher quality, the single largest contributor to student success,” said Ali.

“Even within the very same district, we spend significantly less on teachers in the highest-poverty and highest-minority schools than we do in the wealthiest and whitest schools,” Ali continued. “But in order to spend fairly, ensuring a fair distribution of teacher talent, we need to lift the veil and collect accurate and complete information.”

The Education Trust-West is the West Coast partner of the national policy organization the Education Trust. The organization works for the high academic achievement of all students at all levels, kindergarten through college with an emphasis on serving low-income, Latino, African American and Native American students. To learn more, visit www.edtrustwest. org.

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