- As school districts face a December 2019 deadline to meet mandates in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) for increased transparency in education spending, many have still not been given direction by states as to what elements of the school budget will need to be included or how the data will be collected and presented, District Administration reports.
- The goal of the requirement is to reveal how schools and districts spend their money and to note the differences in per-pupil spending among schools with different percentages of impoverished students.
- While some school districts fear the transparency may unleash a backlash over apparent inequities in funding, the real goal, some experts say, is to open the conversation about spending and produce better outcomes for students.
The ESSA mandate regarding financial transparency at the school level seems to be a two-edged sword for school districts. While the requirement clearly poses new challenges for school districts, it may also spark conversations about schools' specific needs. Though the federal mandate does not require equitable funding at all schools, that seems to be the goal of some parents and observers.
The problem lies in the definition of “equitable funding.” Currently, funding within school districts can vary considerably. For instance, in Rhode Island, a state that has been tracking funding at the school level for years, per pupil expenditures averaged $16,000 in the 2015-16 school year but varied from $9,000 per student to $45,000 per student depending on the school. The needs of students differ, and schools with a high percentage of low-income students or students with special needs may naturally require greater per-pupil spending. In fact, a 2015 study at the University of California Berkeley’s School of Public Policy suggests that “the estimated effect of a 22% increase in per-pupil spending throughout all 12 school-age years for low-income children is large enough to eliminate the education gap between children from low-income and nonpoor families.”
Of course, some schools still struggle with basic funding levels as many states are funding public education at recession levels despite the fact that the recession ended in 2009. Added to this is the impact of outside forces that often skew per-pupil spending toward high-income students. Studies show that funding by school support foundations and parental philanthropy often “exacerbates rather than eliminates budgetary inequities across school districts. Specifically, although most school funding still comes from taxpayers, a study by Ashlyn Aiko Nelson and Beth Gazley at Indiana University found that wealthy school districts are able to provide more dollars per pupil overall through this philanthropic “bonus.” Though the ESSA mandate may shine a clearer light on equity issues, it is not clear if the mandate will be able to solve them.