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The Disparity in Teacher Pay: A Civil Rights Issue

Written by Kenneth J. Cooper Special to the NNPA on 14 October 2011.

New federal research shows that African American and Hispanic students are being shortchanged, literally, when it comes to school budgets, in most districts with diverse enrollments. The U.S. Education Department study found that teachers in schools with more Latino and African American enrollment get paid an average of $2,500 less than teachers in the whole district. The pay disparity reflects earlier research that found students in public schools with heavy minority enrollments receive instruction more often from inexperienced teachers, who earn less because of salary schedules based on seniority.

In the 2009-2010 academic year, the disparity exists in 59 percent of 2,217 diverse districts, those defined as having between 20 percent and 80 percent African American and Hispanic enrollment. The survey was the first time federal education officials have collected information to compare individuals schools based on teacher salaries, which consume about 60 percent of a district’s budget on average.

Teachers are also a district’s most important educational resource.  How the best teachers are distributed is a matter of educational equity.  Because of relatively low pay and poor working conditions compared to other professions, the unfortunate fact is there aren’t enough top-notch teachers to go around, therefore they get rationed one way or another.

“America has been battling inequity in education for decades but these data show that we cannot let up.” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in releasing the survey results last month. “Children who need the most too often get the least.  It’s a civil rights issue, an economic security issue and a moral issue.”

In its proposal for changes in the No Child Left Behind Act, which has been struck in Congress, the Obama administration asks the legislation be revised to require that “comparable resources” be spent on low-income students at the school level, rather than district wide.

“Currently, some schools with mostly white, non-poor students, may get as much as $1 million more a year because of differentials in teacher salary schedules and how resources are allocated,” Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights, said during an interview in June.  “The administration wants to be sure that high poverty schools are getting at least their fair share of state and local resources before any Title I funds are spent.”

Title I is the federal program that provides funds to support additional instruction for disadvantaged students. The program was established in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and continued in No Child Left Behind, the law’s successor. Title I often pays for reading specialists and teacher aide’s in schools with high concentrations of low-income students, particularly in the elementary grades.

Reallocating district funds to make up for shortfalls in budgets allocated to those schools, as the administration proposes, could boost instruction in different ways, Ali said.

“The extra money to schools with teachers who get paid less could be used for many purposes, such as retaining effective teachers in high-poverty schools or providing extra learning time, and not necessarily to expand their staffs,” she said.  “The administration’s proposal requiring comparable resources phases in over time so districts can adjust budgets over multiple years.”

Examining the comparability of school resources has been part of the administration’s strategy for enforcing civil rights.

As of June, the department’s Office for Civil Rights was investigating 11 cases having to do with comparable resources, including the experience and pay of teachers. Those cases involve eight complaints filed by individuals and three compliance reviews initiated by the office.

Those cases involve districts in nine states: South Carolina, Maryland, Texas, New York, Colorado, Indiana, California, North Carolina and Virginia.

Later this year, the Education Department will release state and national estimates of teacher pay disparities and other measures of educational equity.

When the teacher pay data were released Sept. 27, Ali said: “To repair our education system requires that we be able to identify where problems exist.  Collecting these data and making them widely accessible is a powerful way to make the case for action.”


Kenneth J. Cooper, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, is a freelancer based in Boston. He also edits the Trotter Review at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

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