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Advocacy Group Botches ESSA's School Spending Picture in Florida, Retracts Report

There's widespread fear among district administrators that advocacy groups and the media will draw faulty conclusions from ESSA school spending data. Only 17 states so far have reported school-spending numbers as required by the law, but it seems that—at least in one state—some of those advocates' worst fears have already come true.

Education Reform Now, a group that pushes for school choice, last week issued a report saying that of Florida's 10 largest districts, eight spent more money on majority white schools than on nonwhite schools. That's despite the fact that the state's funding formula requires districts to spend more on historically disadvantaged students, such as English-language learners, impoverished students and students with special needs. Those populations in Florida are disproportionately black and Latino.

The group's report caused a stir, and several media outlets reported the numbers with blaring headlines, saying that the state is still disenfranchising its black and Latino students. 

Turns out, the report was false. Just the opposite is true, a corrected report over the weekend said: The state spends more money on majority nonwhite schools than on white schools in nine of its 10 largest districts. The state masks the race group of students in schools with fewer than 10 students of a certain race. The researchers categorized those schools incorrectly, leading to the incorrect assertions, the group told the local media. 

"It's always a good day when we can say states are making investments in historically-underserved schools and we apologize to the Florida Department of Education for transcribing the data in a manner that didn't accurately portray the state's investments," Charles Barone, Education Reform Now's chief policy officer and co-author of the report said in a statement.  "We take pride in producing reliable research that can help improve outcomes for students, and we appreciate having this error brought to our attention."

Florida news organizations over the weekend retracted their orginal stories and issued new ones (albeit with less grabby headlines). 

States have been knocked in recent months for reporting school spending numbers in hard-to-understand spreadsheets buried on hard-to-navigate websites. Yesterday, Jim Blew, the education department's assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development said on a panel at the American Enterprise Institute that states are "trying to hide their website as far underneath as possible, so nobody ever finds it, because if they look at it, they're just going to be confused."

But administrators have repeatedly warned that how districts fund schools is extremely complicated and that school-level data will only tell a small part of the story. Advocacy groups and the architects of ESSA, meanwhile, theorize that more transparency will lead to a redistribution of funds and assure that money set aside for poor students is actually reaching those students. Media reports on school spending numbers have cropped up in recent months in Alabama, Massachusetts and Florida

Education Week published this week a guide for practitioners who want to better understand newly available school spending data. 


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