In the Wednesday night Republican Debate, candidates opted for the popular answer to education reform in wake of the failed No Child Left Behind policies — more localized control — instead of discussing how to close the achievement gap or improve failing schools. By merely calling for lesser involvement from the federal government and more localized control, Republicans underscored their basic inability to solve the complex education problems that this country faces. Dumping these issues back on localities is not an answer, it is kicking the can down the road, especially when many localities have not proven adept at solving these problems on their own.
Education reform should start with localities and be tackled using a bottom-up approach that emphasizes improved transparency so that the failures and successes of local districts can be properly assessed.
Budgetary practices are one such area in which transparency at the local level would be instructive. While much of the debate surrounding school funding has concerned unequal state and inter-district funding, disparities in intra-district funding have gone unnoticed. These differences in distribution of local funds to schools within the same district have had negative implications on federal and state programs designed to even the playing field for low-income schools.
Research has indicated that within-district allocations of discretionary local funds to individual schools are unequal and display a bias towards schools that serve students from high socioeconomic backgrounds. One such study examined 89 elementary schools in Columbus, Ohio, and found that low-income schools received on average $1,080 less per pupil than their more affluent counterparts, after subtracting any targeted federal aid that the school might have received. Another study completed by the Education Trust sampled school districts in California showed a $788 per pupil difference between unrestricted local funds allotted to low and high poverty schools.
These disparities in the allocation of local district funds prevents the effectiveness of federal and state programs created to bridge the resource gap between low and high poverty schools. An example of this is the federal Title I dollars that go to districts to help schools with a sizable low-income student population. This federal funding is commonly used to equalize the skewed local funding thereby negating the intended purpose of giving such schools additional resources
Supporters of disproportionate intra-district funding argue that teacher pay, which costs substantially more on average in affluent schools, make up the local funding discrepancy. However, when teacher pay is taken into account, it can only explain “between twenty and eighty percent of the variation” in local spending decisions, meaning that bias is involved in the distribution of funding.
The lack of transparency in local budgeting is just one of many reasons why ceding control to localities is not a solution but rather an extension of the current problems in education. Localities must be prepared to handle such arrangements and increasing local transparency is the first step. Promoting more local transparency not only makes problems easier to diagnose but it also gives greater system access to surrounding community, including low-income families who are usually on the outside looking in when it comes to influence in local decision-making.
Photo Credit: Drake University