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The Comparability Distraction & the Real Funding Equity Issue

Yesterday, the US Department of Education released a new report addressing how districts qualified for Title I funds (higher poverty districts) often allocate resources across their schools inequitably, arguing that requirements for receiving Title I funds should be strengthened.

The report is here:

Related resources here:

It is certainly problematic that many public school districts have far from predictable, far from logical and far from equitable formulas for distributing resources across their schools. This is a problem which should be addressed. And improving comparability provisions for receipt of Title I funding is an appropriate step to take in this regard.

However, it is critically important to understand that improving within district comparability of resources across schools is only a very small piece of a much larger equity puzzle. It’s a drop in the bucket. Perhaps an important drop, but not one that will even come close to resolving the major equity issues that plague public education systems today.

I have written on this topic previously both on this blog and in peer reviewed publications:

  • Baker, B. D., & Welner, K. G. (2010). “Premature celebrations: The persistence of interdistrict funding disparities” Educational Policy Analysis Archives, 18(9). Retrieved [date] from
  • B. D. (2009). Within-district resource allocation and the marginal costs of
    providing equal educational opportunity: Evidence from Texas and Ohio. Education Policy
    Analysis Archives, 17(3). Retrieved [date] from
  • Baker, B.D. Re-arranging deck chairs in Dallas: Contextual constraints on within district resource allocation in large urban Texas school districts. DeckChairsinDallas.Baker (forthcoming in Journal of Education Finance)

Among other things, I have pointed out on this blog that one reason why focusing on within district disparities between “rich and poor” schools is misguided is because most of the disparities in wealth among families and children occur across district lines rather than within district boundaries. (2nd major point in post)

The new U.S. Dept. of Ed. report reinforces this overemphasis on within district disparity, ignoring entirely between district disparity. In part, it is perhaps a more politically convenient argument to point blame at local school district officials, rather than states, for not doing their part to improve equity across schools. Local school officials make good targets, but it’s harder to pick on states & state legislatures.

Here’s one way in which the USDOE report casts the disparities:

The report compares the number of Title I (higher poverty) schools that have lower per pupil spending than non-Title I schools in the same district. This becomes fodder for the news headlines. And I would argue, fuels public distraction from the bigger inequities.

Now, there are a multitude of methodological quibbles I have with this analysis. First, it compares only the average spending of Title I and non-Title I schools within districts, without consideration for other factors which frequently serve as strong predictors of different school site spending across schools within districts (primarily, concentrations of children with disabilities, and district choices to locate specific programs in specific schools). Poverty is one factor – and a very important one at that – but it’s also important to look across the full range of poverty concentration across schools in a district, rather than just splitting schools into Title I and non-Title I. The Deck Chairs in Dallas article above provides examples of the steps one should take to evaluate equity in spending across schools within districts. So too does this article:

But, let’s take a look at the more important issue that is missed entirely in the myopic focus on within district disparities and “blame the local districts” approach to school funding equity.

First stop, Philadelphia. This first graph shows the box plot of elementary school spending per pupil from the data set used in the USDOE report (nice new data to play with!) Philadelphia city elementary schools simply have far less than elementary schools in surrounding districts (in Pennsylvania). THIS IS THE MAJOR EQUITY CONCERN! Here’s how these funding differences play out along a continuum of all schools in the metro (within PA) with respect to students qualified for free or reduced price lunch:

Philadelphia schools are in Red. Indeed, the pattern of spending per pupil with respect to % free or reduced price lunch is not what I would want/expect to see across schools within Philadelphia. It actually appears somewhat regressive. That is, higher poverty schools within Philadelphia having marginally lower spending per pupil than lower poverty ones. But, there may be some other factors at play (such as special education population distributions) which complicate the interpretation of this relationship. But, we also see that:

  1. the majority of Philadelphia elementary schools have near or over 80% free or reduced price lunch
  2. the majority of schools in this picture that are over 80% free or reduced price lunch are Philadelphia schools
  3. Philadelphia schools have systematically fewer per pupil resources than those of surrounding districts
  4. the majority of other schools in the metro area have fewer than 40% free or reduced price lunch
  5. these much lower poverty schools IN OTHER DISTRICTS have higher average spending.

These are the districts with which Philadelphia must compete to recruit and retain a sufficient quantity of high quality teachers. And it’s clearly a losing battle.

Focusing only on the disparities inside Philadelphia, bringing the comparability hammer down on Philadelphia does little to resolve the bigger funding equity issues that are a function of neglect by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, not the city of Philadelphia.

Not all metro areas look this bad. In many cases, central cities are on average or slightly above average for their metro areas. But arguably, not “enough” above average that they have wide latitude to reshuffle their resources aggressively to their higher poverty schools. Note that if Philadelphia did strive to create a strong progressive distribution of resources toward higher poverty schools, all other schools in the district would be left with next to nothing – at least relative to their surroundings. This is the very “deck chairs” issue I discuss in my paper on Dallas (well, actually on Texas as a whole).

It also turns out that many smaller cities, and very poor inner urban fringe areas (with particularly weak tax base) are often as disadvantaged or much more disadvantaged than the urban core. Places we don’t always hear about. Here’s one of my favorite small city examples, Utica, NY:

Utica City elementary schools (1 in Box Plot) have much lower average per pupil spending than elementary schools in surrounding districts.Here’s the scatterplot with respect to % free or reduced price lunch:

Like Philadelphia, there appear to be inequities in resources across Utica City elementary schools. But again, most Utica City elementary schools have over 80% free or reduced price lunch and spend less per pupil than most elementary schools in surrounding districts, many of which are not wealthy districts by any stretch of the imagination. They’re just not as poor as Utica itself. Here’s a little more backdrop on the position of Utica among NY State school districts.

While it is important, and relevant to consider ways to tighten regulations on Title I districts to require that they are allocating resources equitably across schools within their boundaries, we cannot and should not let the emphasis on Title I and Comparability distract us from the bigger equity issues – the harder equity issues to resolve. While it’s politically convenient to blame local bureaucrats (those overpaid fat cats in large city school district central offices) we must also maintain pressure on states to do the right thing, and ensure that these districts have the resources they need in order to distribute them equitably.

see also:

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Bruce D. Baker

Bruce Baker is Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University. His primary areas of research include elementary and secondary education...