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Is Your District Spending Its Money Efficiently and Effectively? Use This Checklist to Find Out

There's a lot of hand-wringing in state legislatures this year about whether districts are spending all the new state money they've been getting appropriately.

Kansas, Florida, Maryland, and Ohio are all having active debates about whether state legislatures should tighten or loosen the reins on districts when it comes to local control over school funds. A similar debate is going on at the local level where district administrators and school board members are trying to decide how to cut funds or add new funds to their 2020-21 school year budget. 

In that climate, two district membership associations and two advocacy organizations came out this week with toolkits to help district officials think more critically about whether their money is being spent efficiently and effectively. 

The Education Trust and Education Resource Strategies, advocacy groups that push for student-weighted  funding formulas and more fiscal transparency, this week launched a new website that they're encouraging school board members, district administrators, advocates and parents to use when discussing how to equitably distribute their money between schools and programs. 

In a similar vein, the Association of School Business Officials and the Consortium for School Networking together published a white paper for their members that gives district administrators tips on making sure their money and technology are being targeted toward student learning.

Here are a few highlights:

1. If you're venturing into a new initiative, will the district be able to sustain the program over time?  

ASBO and CoSN encourage administrators to think twice about using one-time funds on programs that will have recurring costs. They also encourage administrators to talk with teachers and principals about a program's potential return on investment before purchasing new technology. 

2. Do all school facilities provide a safe learning environment?

There's growing research, EdTrust and ERS point out, that school facilities can indeed impact teacher performance, community well-being and, inevitably, student test scores.  The organizations encourage district administrators to assure that every school is both well-designed and well-maintained. 

3. Does each student have equitable access to the Internet at home?  

As teachers assign more and more homework that requires access to the internet, ASBO and CoSN encourage district administrators to work with public libraries and community groups to find creative ways to provide Wi-Fi hotspots to students without internet access at home. This could require minimal to no cost for districts but have a huge return for student achievement, the groups say.

4. Does each school provide challenging coursework for students and engaging and effective professional development for teachers?

EdTrust and ERS cite surveys and studies that show many poor and historically disadvantaged children are presented with material that's not necessarily challenging because their teachers have low expectations. They also point out that professional development for teachers can sometimes be uneven across a district.  The groups encourage district administrators to assess curricula, instruction, and teacher PD to make sure they're all presented evenly across the district.

All four organizations emphasized in their toolkits the value that community input and conversations administrators within districts have when it comes to equitable and effective spending.

"Our sense is that it's the right combination of resources that makes a difference for students in schools more than a specific funding level," said Jonathan Travers, a partner at Education Resource Strategies.

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