Oakland Unified School District charted a new course when it converted to a new budgeting system last year.

Most urban districts that have switched to student-based or so-called lump-sum budgeting do not charge schools the full tab for teacher pay, charging them a flat rate per teacher. But Oakland—in a move calculated to level the financial playing field, particularly for teacher hiring—decided to make schools pick up the full cost of teachers’ salaries.

“They’re the only [school district] that is not blind to the costs of different teachers,” says Marguerite Roza, an assistant professor at the University of Washington Center on Reinventing Public Education. “They’re trying to make it matter for schools.”

District leaders argue that the new budgeting system will help even out longstanding inequities in teacher quality and experience. Historically, more experienced teachers have clustered in schools that serve wealthier neighborhoods, areas known as “the hills,” says Barak Ben-Gal, the district’s budget director.

Meanwhile, schools serving the poorest students, located in a topographically defined area known as “the flatlands,” end up with less experienced teachers and more of a revolving door as teachers gain experience and then leave for the more well-off areas in the hills, he says.

“Our students are not getting the same opportunities at every single school, and they should be,” Ben-Gal says. “You’ve got these flatland schools that, until now, were underfunded.”

But teachers union officials, who remain staunchly opposed to the effort to redistribute teacher talent, foresee a rocky transition over the next several years. “Teachers are told, ‘We’re not going to be able to afford you,'” says First Vice-president Trish Gorham of the Oakland Education Association. “These are the senior, experienced teachers that most of our schools benefit from.”

And extra money won’t make it any easier for hard-to-staff schools to attract better teachers because the real problem there is poor leadership, she argues. More experienced principals also tend to flock to the jobs in schools in the hills area, she adds.

Pressure for districts to do a better job of spreading around teacher talent is coming from efforts to enforce the federal No Child Left Behind law. In an Oct. 21 letter to state education officials, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings wrote that the federal government “is reviewing the steps states are taking to ensure that highly qualified and experienced teachers are distributed equitably between disadvantaged students and their more affluent peers.”

Windfall for some; others pinched

This school year, 60 of Oakland’s 105 schools are getting more funding than they had previously, and because many of them employ less expensive teachers, a smaller portion of their budgets are earmarked salaries. As a result, flatlands schools have more dollars to spend on staff development, new computers and field trips, Ben-Gal says. He believes the extra goodies will stem teacher turnover in the poorest schools, and eventually, “over time, salaries at the flatland schools will rise.”

Those feeling the pinch are schools in the hills and elsewhere with a preponderance of experienced teachers. They are not getting enough money under the new budgeting system to cover their erstwhile payroll. To help cushion the blow, the district set aside transitional funding—proceeds from a bond measure passed by voters. The subsidy will be phased out by 2007. Last year, schools received $3.5 million; this year, $1.7 million; and next year, about half of that amount.

Thirty-seven elementary schools with higher-than-district-average teacher salaries have received subsidies this year, making it easier for them to keep at least some veterans on board. “You can’t just get rid of teachers,” Ben-Gal explains. “We wanted to make sure we moved to a student-based budgeting program that didn’t hurt the quality of those programs.”

Put another way, the funding ensures these schools “don’t have to do what the Oakland Athletics do, and trade away all their players with seniority,” says Brian McKibben, an administrator with the district’s High School Network.

Claremont Middle School got a financial break last year, when subsidies helped it bridge the $5,000 gap between the average $58,000 salary among its 20 teachers and the district average. However, Claremont didn’t qualify for a subsidy this year, says Principal David Chambliss. “It’s not clear to me why,” he says. “It’s a little bit murky.”

(District officials say subsidies are only for elementary schools.)

Nonetheless, Claremont Middle saved some money when an experienced librarian took a position at district headquarters and “a few” teachers resigned, says Chambliss. Some of those savings were offset by the rest of the faculty inching up the salary schedule. He expects the crunch to ease over the next couple of years as five or six more veteran teachers retire. “That’s why I need the bridge money,” he says.

Chambliss does see an advantage to getting new blood on his faculty. Newer teachers are more likely to take on duties—such as parent outreach and evening meetings—that require them to work longer hours, he notes.

And a mix of experience will allow schools to have teachers who are mentors as well as mentees, Ben-Gal says.

The district also argues that new teachers are not as cheap as many think. Additional expenses for training and classroom aides add up, Ben-Gal points out. But principals say veteran teachers still hit the bottom line harder.

An experiment worth watching

By taking an unprecedented approach with its budget, Oakland has attracted the attention of researchers and other districts. “Oakland is trying something that no other large district has tried,” says Chris Warden of the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, a national network of public education advocates. Cross City has just commissioned a study to determine if Oakland’s method is more equitable than per-pupil funding. “There’s a lot to be learned from their taking this step.”

Other urban districts with concerns about equity, such as Los Angeles and Seattle, have considered alternate solutions. Denver is launching a pay incentive program to get more experienced teachers in poor-performing schools, for instance.

One researcher notes that mindset will be a big hurdle to overcome. Schools that have the most experienced teachers on staff tend to be the ones with the highest-scoring students, and attract “huge numbers of applicants” when a teaching slot is open, says Roza.

“I’m anxious to see what happens in Oakland as this plays out,” says Roza, who wonders whether experienced teachers will head out of town if they lose jobs at high-performing schools and can’t land another one. “Are they just going to say, ‘Forget it?'”

Ed Finkel is a Chicago-based writer. E-mail him at editor@catalyst-chicago.org.

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