Accountability

States Make It Hard to Tell How Much Schools Are Spending, Report Says

By Mark Lieberman — August 26, 2021 3 min read
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What good is collecting data if you can’t read it, interpret it, and use it to effect change?

That’s the question the civil rights advocates at EdTrust are asking of state education departments in a new report out this week that highlights how states are falling short of publishing meaningful school spending statistics that could drive more equitable funding models.

The federal Every Student Success Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2015, requires states to break out for the general public how much districts spend on each individual school. Even as district leaders and some observers warned that those numbers would fuel contentious political fights, education funding advocates see the requirement as an opportunity to gain a more granular understanding of where education resources are going, and who is and isn’t benefiting from them.

Close to six years after passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, nearly one in five states still isn’t meeting the basic data reporting requirements of the law, the report says. And nearly every state failed EdTrust’s five-point test for whether available data from states meets its standards for meaningful transparency.

Reetchel Presume, EdTrust’s P-12 data and policy analyst, and Ivy Smith Morgan, EdTrust’s associate director for P-12 analytics, describe the current state of data reporting on school spending as “a missed opportunity.”

“Stakeholders need information, not just numbers, to advocate for more school funding, protect schools from budget cuts, or push to eliminate funding inequities,” they wrote.

What does the report show?

Presume and Morgan examined each state’s available school spending data report and tested it against five key questions:

  • Is it clear how much each school and district is spending annually per student, and where those dollars are coming from? (This one is required by law.)
  • Is there a section that displays contextual factors in the school district that might affect spending? (For instance, does the district have a high concentration of English-language learners or students from low-income families, who tend to require more investment?)
  • Is it possible to easily compare a school’s per-student spending to its districts’, and to the state average?
  • Is there a section that details “non-financial resources” like the numbers of educators and staff in the school or district?
  • Does the data page have tables or other visualizations that help readers easily understand what they’re seeing?

Illinois was the only state that met all five of the above criteria.

Two other states, Arkansas and Oklahoma, came closest, earning the highest distinction of “aligned” on EdTrust’s interactive map. Eight states got the lowest distinction, “not aligned,” and the rest fell somewhere in the middle.

Ten states failed to fully meet the first item—per-student spending by school and district—even though it’s legally mandated.

Only 17 states posted comparisons to state-level school spending numbers. Only 11 shared data on student demographics alongside finance data.

Slightly more than half of states included tables and visuals to illustrate numbers, but only five had them for every district in the state.

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Why does this matter?

Many state education departments lack the funding and resources to assemble and publish data to this extent. Advocates believe it can help highlight instances where districts aren’t adequately funding certain schools, and where marginalized students aren’t being well-served.

“You can’t fix what you can’t see,” the report says. “Whether this data provides the insight that parents and advocates need to push for equity in school funding depends on whether states make this data available in a way that is accessible, complete, and coupled with contextual information about student need.”

Read the full report for more details on each state’s performance, and check out the U.S. Department of Education’s school spending data hub.

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