Thursday, October 06, 2005 | It seemed like a good idea at the time. Make sure California’s public schools issue annual School Accountability Report Cards that disclose vital information specific to each school so parents can evaluate that school’s quality and performance.

But somewhere along the line, in the 17 years since the SARC was approved by voters in 1988 as part of Proposition 98, the intent to provide the public with clear, honest information derailed. Instead of clarity and intelligibility, today’s SARC has become opaque, obscured by the use of deceptive accounting, perplexing reporting methods and confusing expenditure figures.

“The intent was candor, because the public deserved transparency,” said Steve Rees, editor and publisher of School Wise Press, which develops SARCs for 95 California school districts and offers online school comparisons and evaluations.

Rees said the problems arose because the California Department of Education was given oversight responsibility but insufficient funding to preserve the original point of the law. Much of the information still remains tough to find or impossible to interpret, he said.

SARCs, which are available on-line for any school in the state through the CDE, provide data on each school’s enrollment, demographics, test scores, achievement history and trends, average class sizes, absenteeism rates, textbooks and instructional materials, safety and cleanliness, teacher credentials, staff salaries, budgets, per-pupil costs and other statistics.

One of the most questionable SARC practices, according to state Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), is the use of salary-cost averaging to report teacher salaries at individual school sites. He says this approach hides the disparity in teacher compensation that exists from school to school within a district by averaging the cost of teachers’ salaries district-wide rather than averaging the cost at each school.

This gives the distorted impression that districts spend the same amount of money at each school site on teachers, claims Simitian. But the reality – particularly for larger school districts with schools scattered across an urban landscape that includes poor, middle-class and wealthy communities – is that teachers are compensated very differently from school to school, depending upon the experience, education and credentials of teachers at each site.

To address the problem, last week Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law SB-687, sponsored by Simitian, which requires school districts to show on each school’s SARC its per-pupil spending and average teacher salaries at that site, not averaged district-wide.

“SB-687 is designed to give parents and concerned community members precise, accurate information about school spending,” Simitian said in a prepared statement. “From there, communities can decide whether that money is being put to good use.”

The new legislation does not require equity in school funding within a district, but only requires that school districts disclose on their SARCs, beginning July 1, 2007, actual site-specific teacher costs and per-pupil spending. This transparency of the use of billions of dollars of public education funds promotes good government, Simitian and his allies argue, because it allows the public to see exactly how money is being distributed throughout each school district.

A broad coalition of SB-687 advocacy groups claims in a position paper that SB-687 will lift “the veil of secrecy and help ensure that the school board and the public know where the dollars are really being spent. Local boards and communities will then have the information needed to ensure that low-performing schools have access to an equal amount of financial resources for teachers as other schools in the district.”

SB-687 “addresses the inequitable distribution of base-level spending,” said Brad Strong, legislative director for EdVoice, a California public education reform organization. Strong said that, in addition to a number of statewide groups supporting SB-687, key to its passage were Mark Wyland, Republican state assembly member representing north coastal San Diego County, and Ginger Hovenic of the San Diego Chamber Foundation’s Business Roundtable for Education.

Report on the hidden spending gap

Education Trust-West found that 42 of the 50 largest school districts in California spend about $3,000 less per teacher at schools many believe need the extra funding the most – those with the highest numbers of Latino and African-American students. This can amount to a difference in the allocation of resources from school to school of hundreds of thousands of dollars, the report found.

A second Education Trust-West report (, funded by the Broad Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was issued last month and further highlights the disparity by showing actual average teacher salary dollars spent at each school in the 12 largest California school districts, including the San Diego Unified School District, the second largest in the state.

This latest Education Trust-West report, which took two years to complete and provides data from the 2003-2004 school year, shows, for example, that SDUSD’s Kearny High School has an average teacher salary of $46,377 and a 67 percent poverty rate, while the average teacher salary at Scripps Ranch High School, which has a 16.9 percent poverty rate, is $52,856. The report estimates a resulting $370,072 annual gap in district funding between the two schools.

Yet the SARC for each SDUSD school provides identical salary figures for beginning, mid-range and highest paid teachers – no matter whether the school is in La Jolla or southeast San Diego, nor whether the school serves elementary or high school students, large numbers of economically disadvantaged students or a student body composed mostly of historically underserved subgroups.

SB-687 supporters say the public is therefore deceived into thinking that school districts, especially those in large urban centers where the achievement gap is a chronic problem, are providing equity in teaching ability at each school.

“Salary-cost averaging gives the illusion of a fair distribution of per-pupil funding, when in reality the distribution of teaching dollars is anything but fair and equitable,” said Russlynn Ali, executive director of Oakland-based Education Trust-West, in a public statement. “This new series of reports shatters that illusion. It is now clear that the current teacher spending system amounts to a perverse subsidy to wealthier schools paid for by poor schools.”

“Before SB-687,” Ali continued, “California school districts routinely misled parents and the public about how much they truly spend on what research tells us matters most in student achievement: the quality of their teachers. As a result of SB-687, California becomes the first state in the nation to allow parents and community members to know what is being spent at their schools.

“This level of transparency is critical if we are to analyze and develop sound education policies and budgetary decisions that will help level the playing field for all students.”

The role of labor

Opinions differ as to why schools with the highest number of poor and minority students have more lower-paid, beginning teachers. Although the implication in the Education Trust-West report is that school districts have control over teacher assignments and deliberately place better teachers at schools in wealthier, higher-achieving neighborhoods, this may not be entirely true.

Teacher union rules that limit a district’s flexibility in teacher assignments contribute to the disparity, many education administrators say. They claim that seniority rights that allow a district’s most experienced, and consequently highest paid, teachers to be first on the list to transfer to any posted open teaching position throughout the district – a process commonly called “post-and-bid” – plays a central role in the migration of qualified, experienced teachers to more affluent schools.

Most labor union contracts for California’s larger school districts include post-and-bid clauses, according to Alan Bersin, former SDUSD superintendent who now serves as California’s education secretary. During his stormy seven-year tenure at SDUSD, he often said that post-and-bid union rules limit a district’s ability to assign higher-paid, more experienced teachers where they are needed most – in the poorest-performing schools – by guaranteeing teachers the option to transfer from a struggling school after they gain greater seniority. This ties districts’ hands, he has said, and leaves low-achieving schools chronically bereft of qualified teachers.

Not true, said Robin Whitlow, executive director of the San Diego Education Association, the SDUSD teachers union. “This is about the quality of principals and the safety of the environment,” she said. Repeated teacher surveys consistently indicate that these values are central to teacher priorities in the workplace, she said.

Teachers will bid out of schools if they feel unsafe or unsupported by their principals, Whitlow said. By the same token, she added, teachers will stay in a school, whether it’s in a poor or affluent community, if they are given the right support. “People migrate to good leadership,” she said.

In addition, she said both students and teachers deserve safe, clean facilities. “A student’s learning environment and a teacher’s work environment are one and the same.”

SB-687 supporters contend that experienced teachers generally provide a higher quality education, so the dollar disparity underscores the inequity in public education. Robert Watkins, president of the San Diego County Board of Education, said students at schools with new teachers who earn starting salaries are not getting the same educational opportunities as students at schools with higher-paid teachers. “We need to get the best teachers in those underserved populations, and we have a reluctant partner in labor,” he said.

Whitlow disagrees. “Just because someone has more experience and makes more money doesn’t mean they are necessarily the best teacher,” she said. “The salary is not the sole measure. Just looking at salaries does not meet the complexity of the challenge.”

In a recent interview, Leslie Fausset, who was SDUSD interim superintendent until last week, said that one of the major barriers in raising student achievement is maintaining stable staff at the hardest to teach, lowest-performing schools. But she said there is a range of issues that contribute to the situation. “Post-and-bid is one factor, but it’s not the only factor,” she said.

Hiring practices

“How can you be expected to be accountable when you have no control over your staff?” asked Watkins.

“It’s not about picking your own staff,” Whitlow said. “It’s a matter of being a leader. It’s about having clear expectations and communicating them properly.” She said in recent years SDUSD has had high turnover of school site leadership, “so people hired in [as principals] often do not have proper training or credentials” and therefore are ineffective managers.

Whitlow suggested that the district use teacher migration trends as an indicator of problem areas in site management, and said the post-and-bid structure would be a useful assessment tool for feedback on principal quality.

“Every child is entitled to a good education,” Watkins said. “Districts need to put their best resources on their most critical needs. But districts are held at the mercy of labor negotiations.”

Calling teachers “the glue that holds it all together,” Watkins added, “I don’t think we should continue to be focusing on teachers. It’s not always about teachers. Administrations need better controls. We should be looking at the total revenue and compensation structure.”

The solutions to public education’s overwhelming range of problems cannot be found in one simple answer, but many public policy experts, legislators and educators believe that full disclosure on how education dollars are spent is a positive first step. Others, however, see the new law as a distraction from the central issues confronting California’s complex education system.

“Students who attend the highest-poverty and highest-minority schools throughout California are consistently shortchanged when it comes to dollars spent on teachers,” said Education Trust-West’s Ali. “SB-687 marks an historic first step toward transparency on education spending.”

Whitlow said the bill misrepresents the issues and over-simplifies a complicated array of problems by suggesting that teachers and union policy are culpable. She said the purpose of SB-687 is not to improve the situation but to denigrate it. “Other than parents, no one cares more about children than teachers,” she said.

Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at

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