School Finance Leaders Look in Spending Data for Paths to Equity

Associate Editor

Baltimore

How to make education expenditures more equitable, and how to increase transparency in school funding, were recurring themes at the second annual Future of Education Finance Summit held here this week.

“We have to make sure that every single dollar appropriated to us—whether local, state, or federal,” makes it to the classrooms, said S. Dallas Dance, a senior vice president of MGT Consulting Group who served for five years as superintendent of the Baltimore County school district.

But getting apples-to-apples comparisons of spending in schools is no small task, given the variety of technologies and different methodologies districts use to account for their expenditures.

The quality and usefulness of current school-level expenditure data “are uncertain, and many school districts do not have experience in systematically tracking expenditures” in this way, the U.S. Department of Education found in a report released in January.

There have been a number of federal efforts to track such spending—most recently as required under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which mandates that school-level per-pupil expenditure data be included on state and local education agency report cards.

“If we think of this just simply as being a reporting requirement, it’s a miss,” said Jason Willis, the director of strategy and performance at WestEd, a research and consulting firm, on a panel. District officials should see those efforts as attempts to make connections between policy and practice, said Willis, formerly an assistant superintendent in the San Jose, Calif. district, and the chief financial officer in Stockton, Calif., school system.

Principals need access to data about their schools so they can understand whether they’re under-spending or overspending, said Lisa Snell, the director of education for the Reason Foundation, a libertarian free-market think tank that co-sponsored the conference.

On any given day, is the principal even aware of how much money is left in the budget for substitute teachers at their school, for instance, she asked. For Jess Gartner, the CEO of Allovue which was the other co-sponsor of the event, the stark difference in budgeting hit home when she was a middle school teacher five years ago.

Frustrated at the lack of instructional materials available in her school compared to an abundance in a similar school in the same district, Gartner asked the principal of that school, “Why such a difference?” The answer? The principal from the school with enough for all students asked how many assistant principals were employed at her school. “Eight,” she answered. His had none, and he did the budgeting himself, she said.

Tracking School-Level Spending

To see how school-level expenditure data can be improved, the federal education department looked at data from five states  that had developed their own systems for collecting and reporting school-level data: Florida, Hawaii, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Texas. It also drew information from four districts that had done the same—Baltimore City, Md.; Hillsborough County, Fla.; Houston, Texas; and Los Angeles, Calif.

At issue is how and where to allocate expenditures throughout a district. But the study sites reported that they attributed most categories of spending to the school level, including salaries for teachers, administrators and other staff. They also assigned spending data to “non-personnel items” like textbooks, instructional materials, furniture and equipment, and computers and software.

While schools reported “a relatively high level of consistency” in how salary expenditures were reported, the non-personnel expenditure data proved to be less consistent, according to the report, which was presented by Stephanie Stullich, a researcher in the education department’s office of planning, evaluation and policy development.

Collecting school-level spending data usually required an investment in new hardware and software, the report from the department found. Another prevailing issue was staff training. And six of the sites studied needed to change their charts of accounts–categories and codes used by education agencies to organize their finances.

Willis emphasized the importance of asking key questions before data collection begins, like: “What value might you derive as a district leader from this data? What questions might you be able to answer? How might this drive the work we’re trying to do in our system in a meaningful way?” If districts don’t ask those questions of themselves, the data they collect will only fulfill federal requirements for compliance, but fail to be useful to make decisions and effect change, he said.

Snell, from the Reason Foundation, said: “We want school finance to be more equitable, to be more connected and efficient, to lead to positive outcomes.”


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