How rich schools get richer

Within school districts, some high schools get a lot more money than others, write Marguerite Roza and Paul Hill in the Christian Science Monitor. It’s usually a case of the rich getting richer. Principals in well-funded schools are skilled at getting central district resources and high-paid senior teachers gravitate to their schools, leaving inexperienced, low-scale teachers in the poorly funded schools.

So, the real problem is not that New York City spends some $4,000 less per pupil than Westchester County, but that some schools in New York spend $10,000 more per pupil than others in the same city.

And these spending disparities aren’t particularly strategic. Certainly, some pots of money are intended for poor kids, but lots of others tip the scales toward more advantaged schools.

Money for centrally controlled services (teachers who move among schools delivering specialized services, bilingual specialists, health providers) is spent virtually willy-nilly, depending on downtown administrators’ habits and professional contacts. Funds for these purposes are not accounted for on a per-day or per-school basis. Consequently nobody – not principals and surely not superintendents and school board members – knows how these funds are distributed.

The most important input, teacher salaries, is distributed perversely, as senior teachers take advantage of their placement rights to cluster in the nicer neighborhoods, leaving schools in impoverished neighborhoods with less-qualified teachers who have no choice about where they work.

The New York court order, which requires an extra $5.6 billion in spending, won’t change the hidden inequities, they write.

Teachers will still prefer working in wealthier schools. The newest and least qualified teachers still will be left in the toughest schools, just as the students in those schools will be left with them.

The real drivers of inequity are hidden, and the people who most benefit from them – middle-class parents in nicer neighborhoods, senior teachers, and the union that works in their interest – benefit from keeping them off the table.

As Eduwonk says, this is important.

Oakland gives each school the same per-student funding, and lets schools that can attract only new teachers spend the salary savings on other needs, notes National Council on Teacher Quality Bulletin. The bulletin also reports on a study of teacher turnover in very poor schools.

The Illinois chapter of ACORN, a community organization serving low- and moderate-income families, has come out with a report that provides useful quantitative evidence of just how bad retention rates can be in the highest poor and minority schools. In 64 schools in Chicago, this report found a teacher turnover rate of 25 percent — well above the national average — but also a staggering 39 percent turnover rate for these schools’ first-year teachers.

In their first two years in the classroom, teachers are significantly less effective than they’ll be with more experience; this kind of churn rate takes a high toll.

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  1. Cousin Dave says:

    Sigh. Where does one start? Let me give you an example of something that happened here in Alabama about ten years ago.

    Here, as in most of the South, schools are generally funded by local property taxes, with rates set by the voters of each city or county. Now, there are lots of families with school-age children in this part of the country, so in most areas the quality of a school has a significant impact on property values in its district. A good school tends to increase property values in its district, which results in more revenue being collected by that school system. And the opposite happens with bad schools. So, cities and counties that have a preponderance of bad schools often find themselves in a a downward spiral: as property values in the district decline, revenues decrease, and the school tends to get worse because they can’t compete for teachers or keep up building maintenance. In areas with a mix of good and bad schools, the people with school-age children gravitate towards the neighborhoods with good schools, and therefore become emotionally invested in the better schools. Then, they use their influence at the voting booth to make sure there schools get more funding. It’s a selfish game, but rationally selfish — why should the good-school areas pay a lot of taxes if the money is going to go back to the districts that they just spent a lot of their own money and effort to get out of?

    So, about ten years ago, a group representing some people in the poor counties of southwest Alabama tried to get the legislature to pass a constitutional amendment mandating a sweeping re-allocation of property taxes across the state. Mind you, these are locally voted on and collected taxes that they wanted to redistribute. The legislature eventually killed it, but it was a close thing for a while. It was an attempt to reach a practical compromise with the original demands that eventually killed it.

    Why was that? Well, here’s the kicker: the University of Alabama did a study and found something surprising: property tax millage rates across the state correlated almost perfectly with school test scores! In other words, the good school districts weren’t good just because they won the residential lottery; they were good because the voters in those districts had in most cases agreed to tax themselves at higher rates to make their schools better. The converse was also true: in the poor areas with low-performing schools, millage rates were almost universally very low, and there was little or no support from those voters to increase rates to raise more revenue.

    And this was what eventually led to the bill’s demise. Representatives from Birmingham, Huntsville, and Mobile offered a compromise: they would agree to a formula that would allow for a certain percentage of redistribution, if the amendment would also impose a minimum property tax millage rate on all districts. That killed the bill stone cold dead. Draw your own conclusions.

  2. NYC could solve this problem cold – just give every school the same amount of money, and let them allocate it where they think best. Because the impoverished schools won’t spend as much on teacher’s salaries, they will have more available for other services – tutoring, equipment, repairs and maintainence, books, etc.

  3. Texas wasn’t so lucky. Their brush with egalitarianism, courtesy of an activist judge, resulted in the imposition of what’s come to be known as “Robin Hood”. Lot’s of taking from the rich to give to the poor. Egalistarianism rampant on a field of greenbacks.

    Trouble was, no one, not the imperial judge who ordered the scheme, and not the Democratically-controlled legislature that passed some law to make it look as if they had something to say on the subject, not the editorial writers who got all shivery at the prospect of educational utopia, took into account that rich people won’t necessarily stand there to be sheared like sheep.

    Property values at the higher end of the scale got hammered as rich parents opted to leave Texas and arriving, rich parents refused to pay the asking price for a house that came complete with high taxes and schools that didn’t get much of those taxes.

    I only wish NYC would follow your advice Linda F. It would give wealthier NYC parents a very good reason to seek out and support educational alternatives. I thik it’s the sort of situation a Greek playright would appreciate.

  4. Mike, a diag in Texas says:

    It’s actually worse than that now. There exist high performing school districts that send money to the state under the “Robin Hood” Act. Now these districts are taxed at the maximum but they spend less than the state average.

    Compounding it, there test scores are among the highest in the state. Money is the solution?
    I don’t think so.

  5. superdestroyer says:

    Cousin Dave,

    Want to bet that the school districts with the highest property values and highest property tax revenues also have the highest average education level of the parents. Since educational performance of the children is so highly correllated with parental educational levels, you just cannot claim that higher spending equals higher achievement.

    Want to bet that those rich school districts spend huge amounts on athletics and other extras that have nothing to do with educational performance.

  6. Cousin Dave says:

    Superdestroyer, you have a good point. It’s pretty clear that at least in this area, the high-performing schools have a high percentage of students with well-educated parents. That’s another one of those factors that confounds things when people try to study the problem.

    As for the athletics, though, I doubt that the wealthy school districts in my area spend much more on it than the poor schools. There are two reasons. One is that the poor schools are also spending more on athletics than they should. But the big factor is that the city schools are aren’t allowed to build their own football stadiums. All five of the public high schools play their home football games at one of two munincipal-owned stadiums.

    Since the schools can’t build their own stadiums, that’s one rathole that is plugged. And that gets back to what Linda F mentioned. The problem with that proposal, and I know they’ve had this problem in NYC recently, is that impoverished schools are sometimes impoverished not necessarily because they don’t get funding, but because the funding they do get goes down administrative ratholes.