One key component of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) focuses on fiscal transparency and school-level financial reporting. This shift from current reporting practices requires states and districts to provide per-pupil expenditures of federal, state, and local funds for each individual school.

Although the US Department of Education has delayed the effective date of ESSA regulations until at least March 21st, States continue to release their draft ESSA plans.  Though the federal regulatory framework is in flux, as evidenced by Afton’s session with several SEAs and LEAs, many leading states and Districts continue to support increased transparency and accountability, though identified challenges to address along the way.

The workshop.  Afton Partners joined Edunomics Lab, the Building State Capacity and Productivity Center, and the Council for Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) who hosted a one day workshop for more than 100 State Education Agency (SEA) and Local Education Agency (LEA) representatives from nearly 45 different locations, who are leading the effort to ensure their schools are ready to implement and are in compliance to meet the proposed financial transparency reporting requirement in ESSA.

Afton led a session focused on LEA implications, challenges and opportunities stemming from the financial transparency requirements.  The leaders from each District identified specific areas of concern or optimism in each of three categories – technical implementation, communications and engagement, and overall impact and outcomes of this reporting.

Technical Implementation.  Overall, the area of greatest concern was on technical implementation of the reporting requirement, with general optimism regarding the potential outcomes of this work.  The technical challenges ranged from developing, implementing and adhering to a unified expense coding methodology to the potential need for additional capacity to implement.  Other concerns included how rural districts would be supported, and potential systems implications.

Communications.  The group identified both a set of challenges and opportunities.  LEAs saw the benefits of transparency, including opportunities to improve trust and provide a deeper understanding of how districts operate (and the constraints they operate under), but also expressed concern about potential misunderstandings if data is not communicated properly.  Overall, the opportunity to engage and communicate with District stakeholders using meaningful, relevant and timely data was viewed positively, with a caveat that planning for the communications effort should start well before the analysis and reporting has been completed.

Outcomes.  Impact on outcomes – both academic and financial – was an area of optimism from nearly everyone in the session.  The group recognized how this kind of site-level data can produce value for resource allocation decisions, smart programmatic decisions and trade-off decisions.

As the conversation progressed, each district team shared their concerns and how states could help address their most immediate issues. There were a few districts, including those in Rhode Island and Indiana, who have begun to implement site-level reporting and their insights enriched the conversation for others in the planning process. Representatives from Rhode Island shared their experience transitioning to site-level reporting took five years from inception to implementation. It’s important for states and districts to recognize it will take time for a successful shift to meet the new financial transparency reporting requirement under ESSA.

For more information and our site-level per-pupil expenditure analysis, you can view Afton’s presentation “ESSA Financial Transparency: View from the LEA.”