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Five Lessons From an Outgoing School Funding Activist

Historically, advocacy around school funding boils down to these two sentiments: There's not enough, and it's not effectively or evenly distributed. 

But the general public's understanding of why it's been so difficult for states to find more money for schools and overhaul the way they spend their money on K-12 schools is wanting at best.

That's where EdBuild came in. Founded four years ago, the advocacy organization, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation among others, quickly made a name for its uncanny ability to engage the national media in wonky school funding concepts including taxing districts, school funding formulas, and breakaway school districts.

Over the years, EdBuild has been featured more than 80 times by mainstream news outlets and worked directly with legislatures in three states on ways to make their funding formula more equitable. With that track record to point to, the group will shutter its operations next year after its funding runs out, CEO Rebecca Sibilia said in a recent interview.

"This was always the plan: to raise national awareness of (equity and school funding), and to deepen people's understanding locally," Sibilia said in a recent interview. "The last time our board got together, we said we were going to accomplish the goals by 2020. There's no doubt that we raised the attention of these issues nationally. The work we still have to do is deepen the understanding locally." The group is still working on projects to highlight ways in which funding is being distributed inequitably between districts. 

In this era of peak anxiety over school spending, Sibilia talked with Education Week about lessons she's learned since founding EdBuild.

1) Every state needs a unique fix.

EdBuild managed to make school funding a national issue but, as Sibilia quickly learned, solutions have to be tailored to specific state funding policies. Each state has its own unique funding formula that dictates how it takes local and state tax revenue and divvies that money up among schools. While some states have more money to spend among schools, proportionate to their overall revenue, other states, because of taxing policies and revenue limits, have less. Political context and policy matter, she said.

"We knew it going in, but we didn't really understand how very local this work has to be," said Sibilia, who said the group quickly pivoted to providing technical assistance to states.

Sibilia said in order to gain wins in states, the political and economic environment in states have to be just right.

2) Indeed, school funding can be complicated, but it's not impossible for the public to grasp.

Unlike other aspects of K-12 policy, school funding involves three levels of government, all with different agendas, and it touches on housing, tax, and education policies. That can be confusing for the general public, Sibilia said.

"Half of the immobility around school funding is people are terrified of the complexity of it," Sibilia said.

She said school funding advocates should make explaining how funding works a number one priority. One of the most effective things she did as the CEO of EdBuild, she said, was hire a cartographer. Maps, she said, help people digest what school spending means for them and their neighbors.

"I think one of the reasons we've had the success that we've had is that we've taken a visual approach," she said.

The group also invested in a sleek website and stuck with big, bold numbers to grab readers' attention.

3) Where a district gets its money matters.

What matters most when it comes to how much money districts have to work with is place, Sibilia said. Districts are still heavily dependent on local property tax, and disparities exist mostly because many states have not managed to close the gap between property-rich and property-poor districts. Sibilia has pushed in recent years for states to rethink the way that districts' lines, which she calls "gerrymandered," are drawn.

In 2016, EdBuild highlighted several districts across the country where community groups were attempting to break off from their district, creating new tax bases and a new funding disparity.

4) Look for Trap Doors.

Buried in school funding formulas are what Sibilia calls "trap doors" or spending strategies that have unintentended consequences. An example are hold-harmless provisions for districts that are losing students. Sometimes, she said, hold-harmless plugs can lead to districts getting extra money for students they don't serve for several years, exacerbating funding inequities.

Trap doors require close readings of school funding formulas, she said. They can have devastating consequences over time.

5) Money Matters.

 School spending debates have taken off in recent years, Sibilia theorizes, because there's more and more evidence that money matters. Researchers have been able to pair school spending patterns with academic outcomes, focusing policymakers' attention on how they distribute money between school districts.

"One of the biggest things that's changed over the course of EdBuild's existence—and it's not related to us at all—is that now we have overwhelming and compelling evidence that money does matter," Sibilia said. "That compelling evidence has heightened people's interest."

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