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ESSA requirement for in-depth K12 spending reports looms

Districts must start crunching the numbers based on their state regulations to meet the ESSA mandate. (Gettyimages.com: alex_doubovitsky).
Districts must start crunching the numbers based on their state regulations to meet the ESSA mandate. (Gettyimages.com: alex_doubovitsky).

In light of a looming ESSA mandate to increase transparency around education spending, district leaders have been struggling to calculate per-pupil spending by school in accordance with state and federal requirements.

Facing a deadline that most likely will be in spring 2020, there is confusion about whether states will expect school districts to include the costs of transportation, technology, special education and pre-K. Calculating cost per school will also reveal whether more experienced, higher-paid teachers are clustered in certain buildings.

“For a long time, we didn’t know how schools and districts were spending their money, and particularly the difference in spending between high- and low-poverty schools in the same district,” says Scott Sargrad, managing director of K12 education at the Center for American Progress.

State education departments will decide on the exact requirements, and districts will have to clear some hurdles to obtain the necessary data, Sargrad says.

Many administrators are not familiar with calculating expenditures in this manner, and face technical challenges. Some fear public backlash over the inequities the data may expose. It’s similar to when NCLB required the desegregation of achievement data by different subgroups of students—ultimately, it was helpful in identifying issues, Sargrad says.

District challenges

Indianapolis Public Schools, Indiana’s largest district with 53 schools and 30,000 students, moved to a student-based allocation formula for the first time in 2017-18. Its goals were to increase transparency and equity, as well as to give principals more power over budgets.

Data quality posed the biggest challenge, says Weston Young, the district’s chief financial manager. Indianapolis Public Schools also had to upgrade its financial system and hire additional skilled staff. Administrators are still waiting for the state of Indiana to announce its final requirements for the ESSA mandate, and will adjust formulas as needed.

Organizations such as the nonprofit Education Resource Strategies and Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab offer guidance to districts and states.

While Baldwin Union Free School District in Long Island, New York, began preparing early, the state has provided little clarification on what the actual requirements will be, says Superintendent Shari Camhi. The district already breaks out salaries by school, while instructional and office supplies are allocated by building.

Technology, arts, athletics and other extracurricular costs still must be separated. Districtwide initiatives, such as professional development, legal services, transportation and special education pose another challenge.

“In these cases, the budget will be prepared based on districtwide numbers and retroactively separated by building once allocations are made,” Camhi says.

Getting started

To meet the requirement, districts must start crunching the numbers based on their state regulations, says Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab and a research professor at Georgetown University. Once a picture emerges, administrators must get principals involved with solving equity disparities.

“The real value of the data is if the discussions around spending ultimately prompt changes that bring higher outcomes for students,” says Roza, who also works with states and districts on the requirement.

“We won’t know if our money is leveraged well until we start to look at it with that lens.”

Administrators must also be open with the public about their findings, Roza says. “Embrace the conversation,” she says. “See this as an opportunity to get more eyes on your spending, and think as a community about the best opportunities going forward.”

(Editor's note: The original version of this story stated there was a December 2019 deadline, which was inaccurate and has been changed.)