Raise the topic of education finance and most will jump to the revenue side of the equation. But the spending side is equally important and gets shorter shrift. Parents and educators have not been asking, Is the district giving my school a fair share of its money? And local leaders have not asked what is purchased with that money and whether those purchases make the best use of the money. Part of the reason so much less time is spent on the spending side of the equation is a lack of visibility into how the money is spent. But that is about to change, thanks to a new provision in the Every Student Succeeds Act. In this Q&A, Dr. Marguerite Rosa shines a light on the pressing need to better support district and school leaders in their work on the spending side of the equation.
Several Massachusetts superintendents are spending more money on schools that enroll mostly wealthy students than they are on schools that educate mostly poor students, even though the state designed its funding formula to do the exact opposite. And some schools are outperforming other schools even though they’re receiving significantly less money. That’s according to a new report by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. Three bills under consideration in the state legislature could provide significantly more money to districts. But the distribution methods and amounts vary widely. MBAE found that under the current system, districts such as Brockton, Chelmsford and New Bedford, distribute their money between schools in an inconsistent way that often is not targeted toward the state’s neediest students. That dynamic isn’t always the case, the group found. Many districts in the state distribute more money to schools with more poor students and many others distribute their money evenly between schools.
More than a year after teachers across the country began walking out of their classrooms en masse to demand higher salaries, at least 15 states have given their teachers a raise. And lawmakers in several more states are putting the final touches on plans to raise teacher salaries, according to an Education Week analysis. For their part, teachers have mostly welcomed the raises, but some have said the increases don’t go far enough, especially after what they see as years of legislative inaction. Here’s what you need to know about each state’s plan (as of June 17) to raise teacher pay.
What is the fiscal impact of charter schools on California’s school districts? This is a simple question with no simple answer. Yet policymakers are ready to act… It’s clear this topic (and more misleading studies) will come up in more states soon. Journalists, editors, and editorial boards should take time to educate themselves on it so the public can separate fact from hyperbole and scare tactics. Districts do have a hard time adjusting when enrollment declines because of charter schools or other reasons. Charter schools, as we have argued, did not cause the problem, but they can be part of the solution. Misleading studies only deepen the divisions. Journalists can help bridge these divides by providing skeptical coverage and digging into the details.
Parton: School-level spending data is coming under ESSA. Here are 5 things states must focus on when creating their new report cards
School-level spending data, from the 2017-18 school year, is required on states’ next report cards. Certainly members of Congress saw the value when they included the requirement, but states, along with a broad range of education stakeholders, still need to tell the public why this information is important. State leaders need to set the vision about the value of this information and the story it tells about school quality and student success. As the Data Quality Campaign’s research shows, “put information on a report card” isn’t always the same thing as transparency. It will take effort by state leaders to make sure the data are findable and easy to understand, and they should make it possible to view school spending data side by side with student outcomes. Guided by the vision they developed, states will need to help people understand the “so what” of the data. That includes providing some context, for instance, questions to consider, or a little information on how to interpret the data.
If American taxpayers were to fork out a couple billion more on top of the $650 billion they annually spend on public schools, would academic outcomes improve? More money does, in fact, make a difference, a growing number of researchers say—provided that you spend enough, and in the right manner. They point to research in the past five years that provides examples of instances where politicians and taxpayers invested more money in teacher salaries, school construction, and schools with high populations of low-income students and saw students’ test scores jump. “It’s not that resources don’t matter and that they can’t matter,” Eric A. Hanushek, a nationally known economist and fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University said. “It’s that you can’t trust that you can just drop in a pile of money and expect good performance to come out. That doesn’t mean you should cut spending on schools. I think that there’s still a case to be made on targeting extra resources on schools to get better performance.”
“[School] system leaders often seem unaware of the unintended consequences of long-standing spending practices,” Marguerite Roza, the director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, and Carrie Stewart, managing director of the Afton Partners consulting firm wrote in an article for AASA, the School Superintendents Association. They suggest that digging into school-level-spending data can help in better understanding these patterns. Because of regulations under the Every Student Succeeds Act and improving data systems, additional funding data are on the way. But analysts with the Education Week Research Center…have learned through experience that there is no perfect data set. And no matter how much data are available, researchers and policymakers will always want more. With that in mind, here’s a sort of researchers’ “wish list” for data that would further enhance any thorough look at the complex issue of school finance.
Antonucci: Want to know where your education dollars go? Take a look at labor costs — it’s nearly all salary and benefits
Each year, the Census Bureau releases a report detailing all public school expenditures, called the Annual Survey of School System Finances. The report contains financial information not only for the nation and the 50 states, but for each of America’s more than 13,000 operating public school districts. More than 80 cents of every dollar spent on public education in the United States goes either into employees’ wallets or to benefits on their behalf. That ratio has remained relatively steady for decades, through recessions and economic booms. On average, the U.S. spent $7,053 per pupil on employee salaries and $2,972 on benefits, for a total of $10,025 in compensation. That amounts to 82.2 percent of every dollar spent.
Despite years of states pumping more money into schools, at least 22 states plus Washington D.C., up through 2017, still had not reached pre-recession funding levels, according to the CBPP. In Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Nevada, Arizona and Florida, funding remains more than 10 percent below pre-recession levels, according to the study. The threat of another recession has school finance analysts warning districts to judiciously spend any extra money they get this year. Set aside money in an emergency fund, they advise, and think twice before giving teachers permanent raises that might be unsustainable.
Understanding school finance is one thing. Being effective in communicating about it is another skill entirely.
Most education leaders could do a lot better when it comes to talking effectively about education finance, especially if they hope to be convincing or inspire trust. Whether the topic is a state funding formula, a local tax levy, teacher salaries, or spending on athletics, emerging research spells out what works—and what doesn’t. Drawing from insights on this collective research, below are some headliner do’s and don’ts intended to build understanding and inspire trust: link the issue of finance to students, communicate with dollar amounts and acknowledge tradeoffs but avoid using business lingo, put any research in the local context, offer the public and those inside the system a means to weigh in on financial decisions, and involve principals—either as messengers or in the message; they are the most trusted people in the education system.