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Four Things That Make This State’s ESSA School Spending Data Unique

By Daarel Burnette II — October 30, 2019 8 min read
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Illinois this week will become the 17th state to release its school spending data to the public, as now required by the Every Student Succeeds Act. Ever since ESSA was passed in 2015, states and districts have complained that complying with the new financial transparency mandate will require heavy data lifting, confuse the public, and not pay off in the long run. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos extended the compliance deadline until the end of this school year, and a working group was set up by Georgetown’s Edunomics Lab to help guide state officials through the technically difficult and politically hazardous task of breaking out school spending numbers.

Illinois has been a national leader because of its embrace of public input and its insistence that the data be used to spark dialogue within districts. This past weekend, state education leaders gave an update at the National Association of School Business Officials in Oxon Hill, Md. to a room full of district administrators on what they learned from their process.

Here are four things that make the design, collection, and rollout of Illinois’ school spending data unique.

Press Release and Explainers: Illinois made a big splash today when its school spending numbers were released to the public for the first time. Jackie Matthews, the director of media and external communications, began last week reaching out to individual reporters across the state to let them know about the data release.

State officials have summed up what the data is, how it’s collected, and how it will be displayed on a two page PDF. The press release implores users to explore the data and even gives them questions to ask of the data. (i.e. Why might schools be funded the same or differently, based on the school’s local context? Could any of these typical drivers of school-by-school spending differences be affecting the data? )

School spending in Illinois has been in the headlines for the past several years. The state just passed last year a new funding formula after years of political infighting over how to fix one of the nation’s most inequitable funding systems. And Chicago’s teachers and classified employees have been ensnared in a strike with its administration over pay and school resources. Similarly, districts have had angst about a looming pension crisis and new minimum wage requirements.

Sara Shaw, the senior manager of fiscal and academic solvency of Illinois’ State Board of Education, said Sunday that she hopes that the data will prompt intra-district dialogue over how administrators decide to spend its resources in the coming years.

“This data is most powerful when it sparks conversations versus when it ends conversations,” Shaw said.

School spending data is guaranteed to reveal inequities in how billions of K-12 dollars are distributed to schools, a complicated process that involves outdated formulas and human bias. In Massachusetts, an advocacy group discovered amid a statewide debate over the state’s funding formula that some districts were effectively counteracting the state’s existing funding formula by sending aid meant for poor students to schools with student bodies made up mostly of wealthy students. A similar discovery was made in Washington, D.C., by the district’s auditor.

Many district administrators think school spending data will inevitably invite more political scrutiny and many states have released data without notifying the public. (Edunomics has tracked which states have placed their data on their websites.) Last month, Jim Blew, the the assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development at the U.S. Department of Education said at a forum on school spending at the American Enterprise Institute, that he was already disappointed with states’ school spending roll out.

“Most of them are trying to hide their website as far underneath as possible, so nobody ever finds it, because if they look at it, they’re just going to be confused. ... We hope the next iteration will be better,” Blew said.

Collaborative Process: Illinois’ State Board of Education hired Afton Partners, a school finance consultant, to help bring together constituents across the state, including teacher unions, district administrators, pre-K advocates, special education advocates, and fiscal watchdogs to decide how to collect and report school spending data.

Typically, state departments have worked alone or with a handful of administrators to decide how to define overhead and school-based costs. Delaware’s and New York’s legislatures didn’t trust their departments of education to collect school spending data so they passed laws for them to do so, forcing their departments of education to rush the collection of data.

Shaw said Sunday that the state board didn’t want the new school spending requirement to be “compliance driven” and wanted districts, advocates and the public to be fully engaged with the data. They also pointed out that some districts will hire auditors to collect school spending data, as districts in New York have done, to comply with that state’s arduous state and federal process. Those consultant fees can add up, the delegation said Sunday, defeating one of the stated purposes of the law: to make more efficient and impactful public school dollars.

“This is not about state accountability, and it’s not compliance for compliance sake,” said Michael Jacoby, the executive director of Illinois’ ASBO chapter. “That’s not what the point was. We want to foster innovation between peers. We want districts to have ownership of the data. That’s how it has the most impact on students.”

District Flexibility: ESSA’s school-by-school spending requirements have no rules from the Education Department attached to them (the department has released non-regulatory guidance). This at first gave many state departments heartburn because it required them to define school spending. The process can be especially complicated since various interest groups are split over whether such items as transportation, technology, special education, and pre-K—some of the biggest drivers of the rise in school spending—should be categorized as regular school costs, or as overhead.

Advocates said without federal oversight, school spending numbers won’t be compareable between districts and states, making it difficult for users to draw broad conclusions about how America allocates its dollars.

But Illinois’ group decided early on that it wanted school spending debates to be intradistrict rather than interdistrict, and comparability wasn’t a sword they were willing to fall on. The group also ran an early analysis of a handful of district’s school spending data and realized that numbers don’t change too dramatically if districts count things such as counselors and reading coaches as administrative oversight or school spending numbers.

The group made the unique decision to give some flexibility to districts on how they define administrative costs.

“Districts know our data best,” said Susan Harkin, the chief operating officer of District 300 in Algonquin, Illinois. “I’m happy to defend why we spend so much money on our Title I schools. We aren’t treating all the students the same. We know the data. We know the why.”

Visuals: School-by-school expenditure data is not new. Georgia, Louisiana, Rhode Island, and Washington State all started collecting school spending data on their own several years ago while state legislatures were looking to replace their state’s school spending formula. In addition, 15 states in 2015 participated in a federal school-spending pilot to see how feasible collecting that sort of data is. But few people outside tight-knit research communities and school administrators in those states are aware that that data exists.

Many say it’s because departments have not made the data very engaging.

In Louisiana, the department told Politics K-12 in 2017 that it would invite journalists and advocates to scrutinize their school spending data but said that because the data has been stored on PDF’s deep on the district’s website, users aren’t eager to interact with the data.

Illinois has gone above and beyond with displaying the new data. In response to concerns from district administrators that users might misinterpret and draw faulty conclusions from school spending numbers, the state board rolled out a visualization tool that allows users to view source of funds, school demographics, and how much districts are spending on different student types, including special education students and English-language learners, at individual schools. The state also rates the district’s “financial capacity to meet expectations” and provides a “summative designation” such as commendable.

At the forum on Sunday, the delegation from Illinois encouraged district administrators to ask their community what they’d like to know of the data, but to also craft their own narrative.

“This is an area where you can have more influence by being the captain of the narrative,” Jacoby said to the group of district finance administrators. “You shouldn’t constantly be playing defense. This is not just about data crunching.”

Shaw said the state could make changes to the database as more and more people in the coming months explore the database.

“This could evolve,” Shaw said. “We want to build trust so that the data can be most meaningful to people. The visualizations put in context the data in a way that invites more conversation.”