A Conspiracy of Silence

Paul T. Hill
Portrait: Paul T Hill
Paul T. Hill Founder - The Center on Reinventing Public Education, Research Professor - The University of Washington Bothell, Former Nonresident Senior Fellow - The Brookings Institution

February 12, 2001

Here is something big-city school, superintendents, school boards, and teachers’ unions know but don’t tell: districts spend less money per pupil in the schools’ serving the poorest children. This fact is obscured by funny-money accounting that hides the cost of allowing senior teachers to work in the nicest schools.

In order to preserve senior teachers’ rights under collective bargaining agreements, schools are charged the same amount for each teacher no matter what her or his actual salary is. Schools in wealthier neighborhoods are free to assemble staffs made up entirely of highly paid senior teachers. Schools in poor neighborhoods have to pay as much for a teacher with weak preparation and no experience as schools in more upscale neighborhoods pay for a teacher with a doctorate and twenty years’ experience.

This has disastrous consequences for the quality of schools’ serving the poorest children. Schools with the last pick of teachers must rely on brand-new college graduates and untrained people with “emergency certificates.” Every year one-third of new teachers leave the profession. Among those who stay in teaching, the best depart for schools in nicer neighborhoods as soon as they can.

No wonder schools in poverty neighborhoods are turbulent and parents cannot develop relationships with teachers and principals. The only principals who stay in such schools are the heroes, who will fight for children whatever the odds, and the incompetent, who have no choice.

Some districts claim to allocate disproportionate amounts of money to schools in poor neighborhoods. Funding formulas that give extra weight to needy students, however, are often a shell game. The published budgets claim that schools in poverty areas get extra money, but the district charges them more for their teachers than those teachers are paid. The result is that schools in poor areas have fewer real dollars per student than the budget claims they have.

Although they won’t admit it, leaders of big-city school districts know this is true. They try to make up for the poverty-area schools’ weaknesses by piling on extra programs like after-school tutoring. But these programs work only if the school’s instructional core is sound. There is no substitute for a stable core staff led by a principal and experienced teachers.

The key to reversing the inequitable distribution of teachers in big cities is to give real-dollar budgets to all schools and charge schools the real cost of the teachers they employ. This would enable low-income schools to bid for some senior teachers and force all schools to hire some rookies. All schools would then face the manageable challenge of combining the work of expert teachers and beginners.

Big-city districts claim that schools’ serving the poorest children don’t work because the state does not provide enough money. They are halfway right: schools in poor neighborhoods are underfunded, but the districts themselves are the cause. It is time to end the school board/superintendent/teachers union conspiracy of silence about this. Parents and civic leaders should demand to know whether their district uses funny-money accounting to benefit senior teachers at the expense of poor children.