Whether you’re a local civil rights advocate, parent, or superintendent, it’s easy to get caught up in the fire drill of the day—or even the hour. Oftentimes, it’s hard to find the time to focus on getting ahead in order to avoid potential fireworks. But all of us, regardless of our role in the system, know that our kids need and deserve our best thinking—the kind of thinking that can be done only when we have a little more notice.
The new requirement in the Every Student Succeeds Act to report publicly per-pupil expenditures at every single school across the country won’t lead to much new data until winter of 2019. In the world of fire drills, that’s basically an eternity. But I’m here to ask local advocates and practitioners alike to start taking it seriously now. If you do, and if you start working together, across the lines that sometimes divide advocates and practitioners, you could ignite powerful change on behalf of the most underserved schools and students in your district.
Some districts are already allocating resources in an evidence-based, equitable way—spending more money in schools with higher levels of student need. However, many districts spend roughly the same in every school, regardless of student need, and still others actually spend less in their highest need schools.
This school-spending data will, for the first time, make district spending patterns clear for everyone—from parents to school board members to state legislators to mayors to equity advocates focused on closing persistent gaps in achievement and opportunity for students of color and students from low-income families. There is a real opportunity here for district leaders and local equity advocates to use this data to catalyze desperately needed change in the way many districts allocate their resources.
Anyone who has worked at a district, state, or even federal education agency with a goal of improving opportunities and outcomes for historically underserved students (as I have) knows that this is easier said than done. You also know the frustration of being stymied by political forces that work on behalf of the more privileged and the status quo. Changing these political dynamics takes real leadership from inside our school systems and from community voices. Practitioners need meaningful partnerships with advocates outside the district if real change is going to happen.
But let’s be honest. Despite decades of legal requirements, including laundry lists of everyone who must be consulted in decision-making, the community of education stakeholders has yet to figure out how to work together consistently or well. Too often, the consultations have been treated as surface-level box-checking exercises. ESSA gives us a new chance to get this right, and some advocates are providing helpful online resources for how to manage this process successfully. (See the Partners for Every Child website for one good example.)
Practitioners need meaningful partnerships with advocates outside the district if real change is going to happen."
Here are four suggestions for equity-minded district or state education agency insiders who want to engage equity-minded advocates on the new school-level reporting required by ESSA:
• Start now. Identify a diverse group of community leaders and begin conversations now, even though the spending data might not be published until the end of the 2018-19 school year.
• Don’t hide the story—lead with it. Don’t just show a list of schools with funding levels—identify important patterns. Are you spending more at your high-need schools than your lower-need schools? Are you spending less at some schools and getting better outcomes for historically underserved students? What can we learn from them?
• Overshare. Invite advocates to the closed-door pre-meeting discussion that happens before the public listening session and the “debrief” meeting that follows. Share all relevant data, not just spending numbers. This includes information on student demographics, achievement, outcomes, access to high-quality teachers, and whole-child supports. Money matters, but how well it is spent—and on which critical resources—matters too.
• Make action plans together. Don’t share data without discussing what to do in response to the patterns the data reveal. Include equity advocates in the trade-off conversations around balancing your budget. Share the real investment and savings options you’re considering, and what you know about the evidence and research base for each. As a result, the subsequent conversations will be more productive and increase the likelihood of building community support for decision-making.
In order to advance student achievement, we must invest more in the schools that serve young people who need the most support. It’s also the right, fair thing to do, even if it is politically challenging. Real change will have to be led by passionate community voices. To become invested, advocates have to be part of the district-level conversations where proposals are dreamed up, tradeoffs are considered, and decisions are made.
So take a risk. Start working together today.
A version of this article appeared in the August 29, 2018 edition of Education Week as For ESSA to Ignite Change, It Takes Partners