How can it be that some studies find enrollment shifts to charter schools harm district finances, while others seldom find harm and often find benefits to students? The studies look at different outcomes, so it is possible that districts struggle financially but succeed in insulating students from harm. To sort out financial and achievement effects, we need coordinated studies in particular cities, analyzing the effects of charter growth on district finances and tracing these through school funding and instructional practices to effects on students. The question of effects of charter growth on district schools and students is important enough to warrant thorough and objective study: a sample of districts impacted by charter schools with careful review of financial challenges, district responses, consequences for school operations, and student results. But until such studies are done, people with different perspectives will remain in well-established warring camps.
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.
The most recent analysis from the Education Week Research Center shows that the nation as a whole and many individual states are doing a far better job on the equity side of the equation than they are on the sheer spending side of things. The analysis, based on four measures of overall spending and four equity metrics, gives the nation a grade of C this year in school finance, with a score of 74.9 out of 100 possible points. That’s up 0.5 points since last year. Still, nearly half the states (24) finish with grades between C-minus and D-minus. And the scores are significantly higher on funding equity for the nation as a whole (B-plus or 86.8) than they are for spending alone (D or 63.0). Vermont (C+) and Alaska (C) are the only states to receive grades below B-minus for equity, but 25 states get F grades for spending.
Title I explained: 5 things educators need to understand about federal money for students in poverty
Nearly every district in the country receives at least some money through Title I, the $15.4 billion federal program to help educate low-income students. Yet few completely understand the formulas used to provide those funds from year to year. Policymakers have long debated ways to update Title I, which dates back to the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act. A National Center for Education Statistics’ report released this month details how big a challenge it will be for Congress to overhaul support for the country’s neediest students. The more than 250-page report is worth a read, but Education Week highlights five critical things to understand.
Officials from Chicago Public Schools and most city charter school networks have agreed on a new formula setting the amount of taxpayer dollars that go from the district to each privately managed, publicly funded campus. The new formula returns the charters to the student-based budgeting model that district schools use, including a 2.5 percent increase that amounts to a funding boost of $19 million, according to CPS. CPS said the formula needed tweaking in the wake of the state’s new school funding formula, passed in 2017; the new formula is credited with greatly improving the perennially cash-strapped district’s financial footing. It also resulted in a windfall for charters, requiring districts to provide between 97 and 103 percent of per-capita tuition to charters, up from the 75 to 125 percent range previously required.
The one-room schoolhouse may seem like a distant memory from U.S. history, but about 200 of them still exist today, including Wyoming’s tiny Valley Elementary School. It has only six students, but in Wyoming, education funding is redistributed so that students can have access to similar resources, no matter how small or remote their location. Many small schools across the country have closed in recent years due to state funding issues and population shifts. But in rural Wyoming, one school with just six students has so far survived. Wyoming spends between $15,000 to $18,000 per student per year in K-12 education. Among the top in the nation and maybe unique to Wyoming is the funding model that recaptures money from wealthy districts and redistributes those to school districts that are called entitlement districts.
Roza & Drew: L.A. District is asking for a $500 million parcel tax. In return, let the schools decide how to spend their new funds
For LAUSD, a decentralized model would be a smart move as it asks local voters to approve a $500 million annual parcel tax on June 4. Trust in the district’s financial leadership is low, schools feel squeezed with reports that performance is lagging, and the district is bleeding cash to cover commitments made in years past. Some groups are rightly asking for financial reform in return for approving the parcel tax. Health care benefits alone consume a whopping $2,300 per pupil per year (much of it for retirees) — more than in within-state urban peer districts. And yet LAUSD leadership has been unable to muster the support needed to rein in these expenses. That’s where a decentralized model can help. When finances are shifted to schools, schools get to make trade-offs with their money, choosing where and how to trim to save valued staff. Where those choices bump up against labor contract provisions, schools can and should make their case for more flexibility. In the long run, doing so could influence negotiations between the district and union.
Five years ago, Seattle residents voted for a ballot measure to raise property taxes, generating $58 million to fund an overhaul of existing preschools, some of which are run by nonprofits or out of homes, and create new ones. By the 2017-2018 school year, students in Seattle Preschool Program schools had made significant gains on vocabulary, literacy and math tests compared with a nationally representative sample of children who took the same tests. In November, 68.5 percent of Seattle voters agreed to continue the tax increase to pay for even more preschool seats. Public preschool isn’t just a West Coast trend. Cities throughout the country are offering first-rate, affordable preschool to low- and middle-income families squeezed by rising housing costs. Cincinnati voters said yes to higher property taxes. “We can’t wait around for support at the state and federal level,” said Shiloh Turner, executive director of Cincinnati Preschool Promise. “That’s precisely why so many local efforts to fund preschool have popped up. You can make it happen at the local level because we know the community’s needs best.”