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ESSA Forces Uncomfortable Conversations in Massachusetts Over School Spending

Several Massachusetts superintendents are spending more money on schools that enroll mostly wealthy students than they are on schools that educate mostly poor students, even though the state designed its funding formula to do the exact opposite. And some schools are outperforming other schools even though they're receiving significantly less money. 

That's according to a new report by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, which analyzed school-spending data now provided by the state's department of education under a new ESSA provision.

               

The data dump comes amid a tense debate at the state capital over how to overhaul the state's funding formula. Three bills under consideration in the state legislature could provide significantly more money to districts. But the distribution methods and amounts vary widely. All are tangled up in a politically contentious process that's spurred protests and a lawsuit.   

MBAE found that under the current system, districts such as Brockton, Chelmsford and New Bedford, distribute their money between schools in an inconsistent way that often is not targeted toward the state's neediest students.

"Money isn't always getting to the students who need it the most," Edward Lambert Jr., the group's executive director said in a press release.

That dynamic isn't always the case, the group found. Many districts in the state distribute more money to schools with more poor students and many others distribute their money evenly between schools.

The association also used the data to compare outcomes to school spending trends. School finance researchers have said school spending data will provide more insight on when money most impacts student learning.

"The data raises important questions that must be asked and answered," Lambert said. "It also confirms what MBAE has been saying—that money alone does not guarantee better outcomes." 

The association is using its findings as evidence that the state needs to put more controls around its school spending.

"We need more transparency over how the state gets money to districts and how it's spent," said MBAE spokeswoman Tricia Lederer.   

Tom Scott, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, doesn't dispute the association's findings. But he said the data provides an incomplete picture of school spending in the state. He said at the end of the day, districts across the state are getting far too little money from the state in order to meet the state's standards. He and his members, he said, welcomes scrutiny from the state, but added that districts should be judged based on their outcomes, not how they spent their money.

"It only tells part of the story," Scott said. "Schools only have a finite amount of money. It's a little bit like moving chairs on the Titantic."

ESSA's New Data Demands

ESSA requires states by next summer to break out how much districts spend on each school, a level of detail unknown to most district superintendents. Only 15 states, because of a litany of technical challenges, have been able to compile the data so far

School funding advocates say the data so far has been displayed in confusing and not very useful ways. They have urged local advocacy groups to create tools of their own and come up with their own conclusions.

As the state's battle over changing its funding formula heated up this year, MBAE requested the school spending data directly from the state's department of education. The state has also displayed school spending amounts on schools' report cards, but not in a way that's compareable across schools in different districts.

While Lederer said the data is useful, she said there's room for improvement.

"It's not easy to find and if you didn't know to look for it, you wouldn't even know what to do with the information," she said

Several state legislators, Lederer said, have interacted with their school spending tool since it was released last week. Citing that tool, the Boston Globe wrote an editorial pushing for more state oversight of district spending.

"There's new research that raises doubts about the notion that more money to districts is all it takes to solve problems at chronically underperforming schools," the editorial board said. "If the state wants to fulfill its constitutional responsibility--and head off a lawsuit--it needs to do more than spend. It also needs to ensure districts spend the money well, spend it where it's needed--and produce results."


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