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As More States Reveal School Spending Numbers, Questions, Criticisms Abound

By Daarel Burnette II — February 05, 2020 3 min read
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One of the main goals of the Every Student Succeeds Act is to spark a richer dialogue between parents, administrators and school board members about their districts’ needs by providing them all with richer data.

That now seems to be occurring in several districts across the country as more states roll out school spending data, according to local media reports. But concerns remain about the accessibility and accuracy of the data, states’ limited publicity about the data’s release, and whether states will meet a looming deadline to have the data published before the end of this school year.

In the last few weeks, Alabama, Alaska, and Kansas have now all published school spending data. That brings the total to 26 states that have published school spending data, according to Elizabeth Ross, a research associate at the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, an research group that pushes for more fiscal transparency and has assisted states in complying with the law.

In years past, district administrators and the general public understood school spending as per-pupil average expenditures within a district leading to sweeping (and faulty) conclusions about how billions of federal and state dollars were spent within districts.

In Kansas, there’s a widespread debate now about how $400 million of new state aid meant for “at-risk” students (or academically struggling and impoverished students) is actually being spent after a state audit showed a big chunk of that money is being deployed in schools with few “at-risk” students. School spending amounts were released shortly after the audit was published.

In Alabama, reporter Trisha Powell Crain pointed out that, while the majority of the state’s money is being spent on schools that serve poor students, there are some anomalies:

The average total spending at schools in Alabama not serving specialized populations was $9,374. That spending ranged from a low of $4,593 per student at Eufaula’s Moorer Middle School to a high of $20,020 at Lee County’s Loachapoka High School.

As to why spending is so high, Lee County Superintendent Mac McCoy said Loachapoka is a small high school—fewer than 250 students in seventh through 12th grades—where nearly all students are in poverty. Providing the basic instructional program requires higher levels of local support and more programming, he said.

And in Wisconsin, amid a widespread debate about funding inequities between suburban and rural school districts and whether districts should be allowed to dissolve, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty has asked why the state’s department of public instruction has yet to publish school spending amounts, even though the state has published academic outcomes.

“DPI is dragging their feet on this,” said Libby Sobic, WILL’s director and legal counsel of education policy.

A paper published by the Wisconsin Policy Institute in November said the state plans to publish the school spending numbers in June.

WILL is not the only organization alarmed by states’ progress in complying with the federal law.

Ary Amerikaner, a vice president at the Education Trust, a national advocacy organization that pushes for heavier accountability of schools, said in a New York Times editorial that state departments aren’t presenting the school spending data in a legible way.

“Just finding these reports, many of which have been buried several clicks inside a states’ website, is challenging,” Amerikaner wrote. “We are in the midst of a major missed opportunity. All 50 states...should think of this as more than a compliance exercise: It’s an opportunity to prompt new, meaningful debates about educational equity.”