Teachers Union Leaders Support Equity (in Theory) Or, Why We Can’t Have Nice Things In Education

By 05/24/2016

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How should public policies address inequities across schools and districts? American Federation of Teacher President Randi Weingarten says we hold schools accountable for how much money they have and the types of programs they build with that money. Testifying before the Senate in February, she articulated her vision for accountability systems:

Accountability systems should measure and reflect this broader vision of learning by using a framework of indicators for school success centered on academic outcomes, opportunity to learn, and engagement and support. For example, the AFT recommends academic outcomes measured by assessments, progress toward graduation, and career and college readiness. Opportunity-to-learn indicators should include curriculum access and participation, sufficient resources, and measures of school climate.

Randi Weingarten in 2008 Photo Credit: Molly Theobald

Randi Weingarten in 2008
Photo Credit: Molly Theobald

Last week Weingarten testified again in front of the Senate, this time against a proposed rule that would address funding disparities within districts. The proposed rule, called “supplement not supplant,” would require districts to spend at least as much money on poor students as they do on non-poor students. (For more on the proposed rule and the politics behind it, read this Kevin Carey primer.) Weingarten spoke out against the rule in a piece last month, writing:

ESSA specifically outlines the difference in spending between schools that receive federal Title I funds — schools with high concentrations of students in poverty — and those that don’t. But when it comes to equitable spending, you don’t want to insist on a dollar-for-dollar comparison.

Taken together, Weingarten is arguing we should hold schools accountable for resource equity, but not actually take any steps to alleviate funding inequities within a district.

Weingarten is not alone in this position. Here’s National Education Association President Lily Eskelson Garcia speaking to NPR about her vision for accountability:

But we also pushed on. … You left out of this thing called accountability that the politicians should be held accountable for actually giving an educator what he or she needs to do his or her job.

That was what 1965 and [the Elementary and Secondary Education Act] was all about. It was an acknowledgement that states weren’t doing a very good job on equal opportunity. The extra resources have been left out of the whole accountability debate….

On this dashboard, we want you to have to measure service and supports.

Who has access to that AP class and who doesn’t even have access to recess?

Who’s got a school nurse? Where are the services and the broad range of programs that a child should have, like the arts, like foreign languages?

How would a school purchase all these services, supports, AP programs, nurses, etc.? Goods and services costs money, but, like Weingarten, Garcia doesn’t want to address within-district disparities either. Education Week live-tweeted Garcia’s testimony at the same Senate hearing yesterday:

The distinction that Weingarten and Garcia are making, but that they’re unable to say publicly, is that they support equitable funding across districts but not within them. These are separate issues, but they both contribute to school funding disparities.

As progressives, it makes sense that union leaders would support equity in general, but there’s no good reason for why that moral impulse should stop at school district borders. Instead, this seeming contradiction can be explained by the fact that fixing within-district disparities would inevitably touch on issues of teacher compensation and teacher placement that are under the purview of locally negotiated teacher labor contracts. Districts could address within-district inequities in lots of ways — they could offer higher salaries to teachers in poorer schools, they could have lower class sizes in poorer schools, or they could expand other services within poorer schools — but local teachers’ union contracts often prohibit all of these policy options. (For more about the ways that current policies allow the most experienced and highly paid teachers to cluster in the wealthiest parts of the school district without this “counting” as unequal spending, read this primer from the Center for American Progress.)

Contrary to what Weingarten and Garcia prefer, equity is a better fit for funding conversations than it is in the accountability space. Equity is fundamentally about fairness and resources, and it should be a funding decision, not something we hold individual schools accountable for. Providing additional resources to lower-income schools would help compensate for their greater disadvantages, and we should allow local communities to decide how best to allocate those resources while holding them accountable for their results. In contrast, placing equity into the accountability context would put state policymakers in the role of telling districts or schools how to spend their money, forcing all schools to spend the same amount of money on the same things.

Moreover, a school would be the wrong entity to hold accountable for resources. A school’s resources — everything from teacher salaries to curriculum to non-academic support programs — affect the quality of education it’s able to deliver, but schools have no power to tax residents, and things like teacher salaries and teacher placement policies are determined at the district level. It might be important to consider how well a given school is performing with its level of resources, but it wouldn’t make sense, for example, to hold a school principal accountable for something he or she can’t control. States and districts are responsible for funding and resources, so those are the places we should be looking to address inequity.

—Chad Aldeman

This post originally appeared on Ahead of the Heard.

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