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Editorial: Money fight sends wrong message as schools resegregate

 
Far too many schools have high concentrations of students who are minorities and are poor, trapped in schools with fewer financial resources and academic opportunities. Yet even after last week’s confirmation of those disturbing trends in a new federal report, there is a bitter debate over ensuring those schools are getting the public money they deserve.
Far too many schools have high concentrations of students who are minorities and are poor, trapped in schools with fewer financial resources and academic opportunities. Yet even after last week’s confirmation of those disturbing trends in a new federal report, there is a bitter debate over ensuring those schools are getting the public money they deserve.
Published May 20, 2016

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The number of public schools that have segregated along racial and economic lines has soared in Tampa Bay and across the nation in recent years. Far too many schools have high concentrations of students who are minorities and are poor, trapped in schools with fewer financial resources and academic opportunities. Yet even after last week's confirmation of those disturbing trends in a new federal report, there is a bitter debate over ensuring those schools are getting the public money they deserve.

This year the federal government will send about $15 billion in Title I money to school districts to help them boost achievement of low-income students — Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco among them. Schools that serve poor, often minority, students need extra help for their students to succeed, and the federal money is supposed to add to — not replace — local and state money that school districts are already spending. But a contentious fight has started over how to make those calculations, pitting the Obama administration against an unusual alliance of congressional Republicans and teachers unions.

Congress recently passed a new omnibus education bill, but it was up to new Education Secretary John King Jr. and his department to write the guidelines to enforce the law. Basically, districts would have to prove that they spent state and local money evenly at all schools in order to receive extra federal money for their Title I schools. He didn't force districts to choose a methodology, saying they could use student/teacher ratios, head counts or a variety of other measures. But the bottom line was that a neutral outside auditor would have to see that funding was distributed equitably.

Here's where trouble began. Most school spending tends to be on teacher salaries, and they would have to be factored into the calculations somehow. Since high-poverty schools typically have high teacher turnover, they often have lower-paid rookie teachers. So a formula that takes teacher pay into account will often show much higher per-pupil spending at more affluent schools, which tend to have more experienced teachers. Those same seasoned teachers earn higher salaries and have typically developed classroom techniques over time that also make them more effective.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate's education committee, is livid with King. He is himself a former education secretary, but he has little love for the department he once led. He says this idea is against the law and has even suggested that states sue the Education Department if King persists. Then last month, King received a terse letter from teachers unions, governors and school boards also protesting the proposal. The unions worry that the plan could affect teacher assignment, and other parties fear that this is federal government overreach.

They are all missing the point, which was emphasized in a letter sent in support of King by a coalition of civil rights groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Children's Defense Fund.

Last week, on the anniversary of the Brown vs. Board decision that was supposed to end school segregation, a federal report confirmed American schools are resegregating — and as they do, they are once again bifurcating into haves and have-nots. Teacher salaries can indeed be one proxy for quality, and if poorer schools have a smaller payroll, that's a sign of trouble. That should be self-evident.

In Pinellas, the five high-poverty, majority minority elementary schools in south St. Petersburg that were the subject of the Times' yearlong "Failure Factories" investigation illustrate what happens when a district neglects its obligations. The five are all Title I schools, and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, whose district includes the neighborhoods where the schools are located, has asked for an inquiry into whether the district supplanted, rather than supplemented, those funds at those schools. The federal government handed it over to the state, and the investigation is ongoing.

It should not be hard to figure out a way to measure equitable school spending as a first step toward ensuring that Title I money serves its intended purpose — to give help to the students who most need it. The bottom line remains that the federal money is supposed to be in addition to state and local money to try to level the playing field for poor students who deserve an equal opportunity for a quality education.