Corrected: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the steps Illinois took to prepare its software system to comply with ESSA’s new requirement to break out school spending numbers. The state internally built a new data submission tool for districts to comply with the requirement.
School district leaders in 2016 were seemingly apocalyptic once they realized that a tiny provision buried in the Every Student Succeeds Act would by summer 2020 require them to report to the public how they divvy up funds among their schools.
Putting a big spotlight on school-level-spending amounts—rather than the more general, but widely known districtwide per-pupil averages—would pit school communities against each other, they warned, confuse people about what drives education costs, and fuel those who argue districts don’t spend enough in the classroom.
But in at least 13 states where education departments have in the past two months started reporting school-by-school spending amounts a year ahead of schedule, including in Texas, West Virginia and Wyoming, most of those administrators’ fears have yet to come to fruition.
So far, with exceptions such as New York state and North Carolina, there’s been little media coverage of spending disparities between schools, and few school boards appear to be using the numbers to craft their budgets for the coming school year.
In fact, frustrated civil rights and school funding supporters are pushing state education officials to better publicize the school spending amounts and urging journalists and local advocacy groups to do their own detailed reporting on the newly available data.
“We know that inequities in funding occurs at both levels, within districts and across districts,” said Ary Amerikaner, the vice president for P-12 policy, practice, and research for the Education Trust, a civil rights advocacy group. “Communities need to see if they’re getting shortchanged relative to their schools in a district. That’s a conversation they need to have with board members, and that’s a conversation they need to have with state legislatures.”
States are required to have school-spending numbers published by June 2020. Pending guidance, which closed for public comments last week, would let states combine state and local dollars in reporting how much they spend, rather than parse them out, something many states said early on was a technically difficult thing to do. And the proposed guidance doesn’t urge states to necessarily make school spending numbers comparable between districts, something Amerikaner critiqued as defeating the purpose of the law.
Marguerite Roza, a school finance expert who is working with states through a Financial Transparency Working Group associated with Georgetown University’s Edunomics, a school finance think tank, said during a recent webinar that most states seem to be on track to meet ESSA’s requirements in that area by next year. Meanwhile, she pointed out, several states are still struggling to comply with some components of the law.
When ESSA was passed in December 2015, the fiscal reporting provision got little notice and drew little debate. Republicans saw it as a way to push for more fiscal transparency and accountability of public school spending. Democrats saw it as a way to highlight how they think state and local officials spend public resources in an unfair way between minority student groups.
But as state superintendents and administration-association groups started explaining the new requirement to district officials, there was widespread alarm by district chief financial officers and superintendents that the reporting of school spending would wreak political havoc. While the legal and political fight over school funding disparities has historically pitted urban, suburban, and rural districts against each other, school funding experts argue that there are striking—and little-known—differences in spending from school to school within districts themselves.
Reviewing the Data
School-by-school spending numbers reported in a number of states so far bears that out.
A recent Education Week analysis of school spending in Rhode Island, one of the 13 states that have released their school spending numbers, showed that the state spent an average of $16,000 to educate each of its students in the 2015-16 school year. But in the Cumberland school district, for example, Ashton Elementary School spent $15,000 per student, while Garvin Memorial Elementary in the same district spent $10,000 per student.
In addition to political sensitivity, figuring out school spending numbers and a way to display them to the public can be technically difficult.
There’s often no clear-cut definition of what a “school” cost is versus what an “overhead” cost is. And states have had a difficult time figuring out how to divvy up costs such as transportation and school lunch between schools.
A review of the state report cards that have been published in the past two months shows that some states, such as Rhode Island and Washington, report details like how much schools spend on teaching, textbooks, and curriculum while others, such as Delaware and Massachusetts only report overall spending numbers. Louisiana displays PDF files of school spending numbers and Georgia displays the spending numbers on an Excel spreadsheet.
Many states, such as Colorado and Wyoming, have created separate websites for school spending numbers.
But districts often have different, and sometimes outdated, systems to track school funding. South Carolina bought new school finance software in order for districts to report school spending numbers (they have yet to report their numbers), and Illinois internally built a new data submission tool for districts to comply with the requirement.
In places where some of the newly detailed data have been reported and publicized by the states’ department of education, the numbers have begun to gain some traction with local media.
In April, Newsday looked at New York’s figures and found that administrative spending by districts in the state will top more than $1 billion this school year, and amounted to 10 percent of overall school spending costs, a figure that enraged local anti-tax advocates.
North Carolina’s education department last week put out a press release pointing out its own conclusions after analyzing school spending numbers. Among its findings: The state spends, on average, $42 on textbooks for each student, and teachers make $3,000 more than the average median household income across the state. Teachers this month plan to protest in the state capital over low pay.
“You can now see how money is spent statewide and in your county,” said state schools Superintendent Mark Johnson. “This is a powerful way to gain insight into North Carolina’s public school funding, and we are happy to bring it to you.”
As states and districts grapple with ways to collect and display school spending data, advocates are urging the public to get more engaged with the process.
“I hope that the numbers will be used to drive conversations about inequities and the way we resource and fund our schools,” said Amerikaner of the Education Trust, which analyzed New York’s school spending numbers last year after the state made the numbers publicly available. “For that to happen, the data needs to be reported in a way that’s understandable, usable, and widely distributed.”
Librarian Maya Riser-Kositsky contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 2019 edition of Education Week as A Slow Build for Reporting on ESSA Data