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Why School-Level Numbers Matter in the K-12 Funding Fight

Thousands of administrators across the country have spent countless hours this summer attempting to rejigger their school finance software to determine how much money they spend on each individual school—a new reporting requirement under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Will it be worth all the headaches? A new federal report suggets the answer is yes.

Unlike the more familiar average per-pupil spending levels, school-level funding will highlight funding disparities between student groups and help administrators target resources to academically struggling schools, policymakers and advocates predict. 

It's certainly an ambitious goal—and a heavy lift. Many administrators have complained to their state departments that states won't be able to clearly delineate between a school-level cost and an administrative overhead cost and that school spending data won't be compareable across districts. They also say they don't have the staff to collect such detailed information and fear that the data will just cause more confusion among the public.

But a recently released study based on a pilot project in 2014 by the National Center for Education Statistics says that collecting school-level data is, in fact, feasible, and that, if done right, could be a useful tool to develop policy. 

"As the number of states participating in the (school level funding) increases and the collection continues to expand, response rates and the availability of complete, accurate, and comparable public-use finance data should improve," researchers said.

The study is based on 15 states that in the 2014 and 2015 school years agreed to a participate in a federal pilot program to determine school-level spending.

Researchers noted that of the 15 states that collected the data, at least eight managed to collect more than 95 percent of all school personnel costs and another seven were able to collect non-personnel items such as school supplies and transportation costs. 

And the researchers said the data is consistent with other federal data sets that track teacher salaries and other school expenses. As states and districts continue to update their school finance software, the data, researchers predict, will become more and more reliable.

But researchers at NCES said some concern remains in the field, including skepticism among finance professionals about the importance of collecting school-level funding and navigating legal and technical challenges that can make collecting the data for some districts especially challenging. 

One goal many researchers and advocates have is to compare spending data to academic outcomes. They predict that knowing what academically successful schools spend their money on will bolster claims that how you spend your money can, in fact, improve academic outcomes. 

More than 16 states now have reported school-level spending, according to Edunomics, a research lab based at Georgetown University that tracks states' attempts to comply with the ESSA requirement. 

Read the entire report here.

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