ESSA Aims to Shine Brighter Light on Per-Pupil Spending

High schoolers Jackson Laferriere, left, and Noah Lemoine fill out work sheets in teacher Natalie O’Brien’s civics class in North Smithfield, R.I. The state already collects school-level spending data.
High schoolers Jackson Laferriere, left, and Noah Lemoine fill out work sheets in teacher Natalie O’Brien’s civics class in North Smithfield, R.I. The state already collects school-level spending data.
—Steven Senne/AP-File

Cost figures can prove elusive

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States and school districts are girding for a little-known but tricky piece of the Every Student Succeeds Act: the requirement that states report per-pupil spending for all their schools, a level of detail unknown even to many district superintendents.

Without specific federal guidance so far, state finance officials must untangle the myriad—and sometimes obscure—costs behind school operations to come up with a single figure for each of the nation's 99,000 public schools.

Do transportation and school lunch count as a district's administrative costs, for example, or are they school costs? How do you split the expense of a bus that stops at several schools?

"It's a big shift in how we've traditionally seen finance data," said Maureen Wentworth, the director of education data and information systems for the Council of Chief State School Officers. "It's going to open a window of new conversation across states and districts."

Presenting school spending data in a comparable way to the public in annual school report cards starting in 2017-18, as ESSA requires, also could have dramatic political repercussions, according to district and state officials who have conducted such forensic audits in the past. The data could figure into everything from basic maintenance to the distribution of experienced teachers, the fate of magnet programs, and other sensitive policy decisions.

"There are huge inequities in spending between some schools," said Marguerite Roza, a school finance professor at Georgetown University who has audited several districts' budgets to figure out school-by-school spending. "There are some schools that are successful with less money, and there are some that are not. With this information, states and districts can tell school principals, 'You're expensive, but you're lagging compared to your peers.' "

But some local budget directors warn that comparing school-by-school spending without the proper context can lead to faulty conclusions by parents and school board members.

Districts spend their money on thousands of things, they note. While teacher salaries make up the vast majority of the budget, districts also pay for transportation, textbooks, classroom supplies, building upkeep, and utilities. Those costs vary widely depending on a school's demographics, location, and the building's age and condition, the officials point out.

Push for Transparency

When it comes time for the citizens of New Paltz, N.Y., to vote on their school district's budget, Richard Linden, the assistant superintendent for business, won't guide voters to the newly available school spending figures on the state's report card.

"I'm not going to give my voters some sort of artificial thing because the feds want it," Linden said. "I'm not going to confuse my voters with that [school spending data]," he said, "because it's garbage."

Average state and district per-pupil spending amounts typically are calculated in a pretty straightforward way: Take the amount of money spent and divide it by the number of students.

For many districts, though, the school-by-school spending breakdown has long been a sort of black box. District officials spend from a variety of accounts and make a series of subjective calls throughout the year to keep schools up and running.

During the drafting of ESSA, the 2015 revision of the No Child Left Behind Act, Republicans said a school-by-school accounting would provide more financial transparency, and Democrats said it would provide a sharp tool for advocates to close disparities between schools. Despite the requirement's potential repercussions, it was barely mentioned during the debates leading up to ESSA's passage.

"There are going to be growing pains just like we saw with data-reporting requirements under NCLB," said Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director of policy and advocacy at AASA, the School Superintendents Association. "If [district officials] don't help shape the narrative, these numbers are going to be subject to interpretation."

Some legislatures, such as those in Rhode Island and Washington state, have for years required the reporting of this level of school spending, though the data are hard to find on the states' websites and are mostly used by practitioners and politicians. California placed school-by-school spending and teacher salaries in the lower half of its revised state report card earlier this year.

"Some of this is predicated on states being thoughtful about how they present this information," said Brennan Parton, the associate director of state policy and advocacy at the Data Quality Campaign, an organization that works with state policymakers to improve data collection and use.

But other states are far less prepared to take on the task of school-by-school accounting.

Wyoming, for example, takes money from mineral-rich districts that collect more local tax revenue and sends some of that money to mineral-poor districts in the form of a block grant. Getting school-level spending numbers from the districts and then explaining to the public why one school may get more money than a school on the other side of town is "a huge obstacle for us," said Jed Cicarelli, the school foundation supervisor at the Wyoming Department of Education.

"The impetus is that they want communities and parents to be able to analyze resource inequities," Cicarelli said of federal lawmakers. "Wyoming addresses that through our funding-model mechanism. The whole idea of our system is that we provide equitable resources based on district characteristics."

Officials in Rhode Island and Washington state, which already collect the school-level data, said it can be helpful in figuring out spending disparities and attaching actual figures in perennial battles over administrative expenses and charter vs. traditional public school costs.

"This information brought to life a lot of the concepts being thrown around in political debates," said David Abbott, the Rhode Island's deputy education commissioner.

But Tim Ryan, the executive director of the Rhode Island local superintendents' association, also warned that it would be naive to judge budgets solely by the flat amount of spending by schools.

"The key is looking at proportion of spending," he said. "The higher percentage of a school's budget that's going into classroom instruction is what matters. You want to make sure districts are putting their resources to do the most good."

Using the Data

Seattle and Memphis, Tenn., offer examples of how school-level data can inform the policy debate.

Seattle, as part of a statewide initiative, several years ago began reporting school-by-school spending on a wide range of items, including how much schools received for teachers, counselors, and custodians.

The spreadsheet, a link to which is buried on the state education department's website, has been heavily relied upon as the legislature works to come up with a new funding formula in response to a state supreme court ruling that called its school spending unconstitutional.

But the data have distorted some of the debate, said JoLynn Berge, Seattle's assistant superintendent for business and finance.

"Everyone wants every dollar to go to the classroom," said Berge. "Do you want your kid to get to the school first? Who's going to feed them when they get there?"

In Memphis, school officials last year surveyed their principals on the issue of spending, and almost half said they thought funds were being distributed unfairly. The district, amid a budget deficit and the risk of schools' being taken over by the state for poor performance, responded with an audit to better understand school-by-school spending.

Disparities between schools became apparent, said Lin Johnson III, the district's chief financial officer. The district now is debating whether to shift a large portion of its budget to serve its most academically struggling students and give principals more autonomy on school spending.

"What we're able to do is link that spending to student outcomes," Johnson said. "Are the resources we're spending on a child being spent efficiently and effectively?"

Vol. 36, Issue 28, Pages 1, 20-21

Published in Print: April 19, 2017, as Tricky ESSA Data Lift: What's Spent Per School
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