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Could ESSA Pit School Communities Against One Another For Money?

When I was reporting last month on the years-long political sparring in Kansas over education funding, Dave Trabert, the president of the Kansas Policy Institute, accused Kansas school districts of taking Title I money and money the state has set aside to close that state's jarring achievement gap and instead spending it on wealthy white students.  

It was an accusation that the state's superintendents and school board members have been vigorously rebutting with research of their own. 

But soon, legislators and school district officials will have a new tool to use when debating school funding when the Every Student Succeeds Act goes into full effect later this year.  

I spent last week writing about a little-known but tricky  part of the Every Student Succeeds Act that could have outsized implications along those lines, according to several financial gurus I keep in touch with. 

On page 50, Section 1111 of the law, there's the requirement that states report "the per-pupil expenditures of federal, state, and local funds, including actual personnel expenditures and actual nonpersonnel expenditures of Federal, State, and local funds, disaggregated by source of funds, for each local educational agency and each school in the state for the preceding fiscal year."

At first glance, I couldn't see what the big deal was. Average per-pupil spending is regularly tossed around in the perennial political fights over how much education costs.  

But, as Marguerite Roza, a school finance professor at Georgetown University, pointed out to me, school-by-school spending has long been a sort of black box—she knows that from having audited several districts' budgets to figure out their spending down to that level of detail.

In a paper, Roza and Cory Edmonds (who I worked with as a reporter in Memphis for several years) wrote in 2014, they explain the evolving way districts have distributed money to schools and argue that only a portion of district funds follow students and their financial needs.

From the paper: 

Historically, districts used a staffing formula to assign fixed numbers and types of staff to each school, then budgeted school resources based on staff salaries. Though many districts still use the staffing formula approach, growing numbers of big-city districts are shifting away from allocating resources based on staffing and toward funding schools based on the number and kinds of students they serve.

Roza has found that disparities are exacerbated because of the sometimes haphazard way districts distribute funding between their schools. Teachers with more years of experience often are crowded into schools with fewer poor students; some parent groups advocate for extra janitors and after-school programs; and some schools may find other streams of revenue.  

Also, in the April 19 issue of Education Week is a report by my colleague Francisco Vara-Orta who found that, in Wisconsin, after state officials cut almost $1 billion from its education budget, parents (particularly those at the state's wealthier schools) poured millions of dollars into their schools.  

In complying with the new federal law, states now are busy trying to figure out how to parse out, among other things, school transportation, school lunch costs, teacher distribution, PTA contributions, and grants in a comprehensible way for school officials and the public alike.  

More than a quarter of Kansas' students aren't meeting basic reading and math standards, according to that state's Supreme Court, which ruled its funding formula inadequate earlier this year. That number includes half the state's black students and a third of the state's Hispanic students. As political negotiations over the state's next funding formula roil on, advocates for this new ESSA law argue that school-level spending would show whether majority black, Latino and poor schools are getting an equitable or, in some cases, more, money than neighboring wealthy white schools. 


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