Last week President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan officially rolled out the Race to the Top competitive grant program, which will reward $4.3 billion to states that encourage education reform in four areas: implementing standards and assessments, improving teacher quality, building data systems, and putting highly qualified teachers in front of the neediest kids.
But edu-blogger Alexander Russo made a very good point this morning, via twitter: In its focus on teaching -- the DOE actually bans states from applying for Race to the Top if they have laws preventing student testing data from influencing teacher assessments -- the program neglects to tip the scale in favor of ending another, more basic form of educational inequity: unequal funding.
The initial Race to the Top application weighs whether states are maintaining overall education funding in the midst of the recession, but it does not prioritize equitable funding across school district lines. In the vast majority of states, local property taxes are the major funder of public schools, meaning that affluent suburban schools have way more money to play with than inner-city or rural schools. Sure, there are school districts -- such as Washington, D.C. -- that spend more money per pupil than their suburban counterparts, yet have far worse results. The reasons why are myriad -- I happen to believe that concentrated poverty and segregation are the biggest culprits. But across the United States, teachers regularly leave city schools for suburban ones, not because they aren't motivated to work with struggling students, but because in a relatively low-paid profession, they simply can't afford to turn down the extra thousands and tens-of-thousands of dollars that suburban districts offer.
For example, the average New York City public high school teacher earns about $60,000 annually; in nearby Westchester County, the average teacher earns closer to $70,000. In super-rich Scarsdale, a Southern Westchester town, about half of all teachers have base salaries exceeding $100,000. The highest-possible base salary in New York City is $74,796, for teachers with a master's degree and eight years of classroom experience. "Our teachers are our best asset," Donna O. McLaughlin, the White Plains school board president, told the New York Times in 2005, explaining high teacher pay in the suburbs. "I think it's very important that we pay them well. You need to be competitive."
The Obama administration has echoed those sentiments again and again, usually in the context of support for performance pay. But as the Department of Education considers ways to tweak the Race to the Top Program -- the grants will be given out in two phases over the course of two years -- it should consider pushing state legislatures to centralize school funding, or even, as research suggests is necessary, provide more money and support to schools with the neediest kids.
For more: Read this Center for American Progress report on school funding issues.