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How School Finance Research Can Sharpen the Debate, Strengthen Policy, and Improve Student Outcomes

Making the Grade 2019: How Fair Is School Funding in Your State?, co-authored by Robert Kim, Danielle Farrie, and David Sciarra and released by Education Law Center, provides “compelling evidence that K-12 public school funding continues to be deeply unfair in many states and a major factor contributing to disparities in education resources, opportunities and outcomes for the 50 million public school children across the United States.”

With the 2020 presidential election around the corner, we’ve begun to hear some broad policy positions from the Democratic Party candidates. Soon, many of us will be looking for sustained public conversation about the issues we care about most. For me, that issue is K-12 education, and more specifically, K-12 school funding. (I know what you’re thinking: Don’t hold your breath.)

A scan of the research and data suggests that the time for renewed attention to school funding—and its impact on educational excellence and equity—is now. School finance research and data exist in spades and will soon grow exponentially thanks to a requirement in the Every Student Succeeds Act for states to report actual spending on a per-school basis beginning in 2018-19 school year. The state reports and funding data are just now beginning to come online, and will complement existing federal, school-level data showing civil rights and opportunity gaps in public schools.

Given these circumstances, new research that harnesses this data to pursue important questions around school finance and students of diverse backgrounds has the potential not only to shape the debate in years ahead, but improve policies and ultimately reduce inequalities in student opportunities and outcomes.

The research says…

Consider where we are today: Troves of government data (see here) and non-government (see here, here, here, and here) data show that states operate very differently when it comes to providing K-12 school funding. Even after adjusting spending levels to account for regional cost differences, some states spend more than three times more per pupil than other states. When these interstate differences are viewed in concert with district- or school-level disparities within states, we come to the inescapable conclusion that, for the most part, adequacy in school resources is a crapshoot, dictated largely by the state or district a child lives in and which school she attends. Some states provide so little school funding, have such little ability to generate revenue for schools, or have such high percentages of students in poverty that even doubling or tripling their school spending would fail to enable their students to reach even average academic achievement when compared to students in other states.

All of this said, research has shown that increased spending in K-12 education improves student outcomes, but how money could be best spent remains an important open question.

What might we learn next?

As new school finance research and data becomes available, researchers and policy analysts will have access to new tools to tackle urgent questions that need to be answered, such as:

  • What is the relationship between school funding and the number and kinds of courses and other educational opportunities that are offered in individual schools? What are the resource and opportunity differences not only between states and districts, but between schools within districts?
  • To what extent are individual schools and districts not able to provide sufficient resources and opportunities to students through existing federal, state and local funding sources? And what should be done about that?
  • Can we begin to make classroom-level observations about the impact of school funding on teaching and learning in light of the data afforded by ESSA?
  • Which students within districts are the most impacted by resource inequities in terms of race, sex, ability, EL status, income, and geography—and what do these data portend for the future direction of civil rights, advocacy, and policy in education?
  • What are the impacts of weighted funding formulas on targeted students within and between districts?
  • How do charter schools compare to non-charter schools within districts in terms of school funding, resources, and opportunities; and what do the comparison results say about the state of education equity and the school choice movement?
  • What is the relationship between education and health investments and student outcomes within individual school communities?
  • How can we better measure the cost effectiveness of education programs or interventions that have been adopted by individual schools and districts? And how do the costs and cost-effectiveness of programs or interventions vary across different locations or regions?
  • How do teacher salaries and teacher experience levels relate to student outcomes within districts? Can we more clearly understand the relationship between school funding, teacher quality/experience, and regional labor market differences?

…new research has the potential not only to shape the school finance debate in years ahead, but improve policies and ultimately reduce inequalities in student opportunities and outcomes.

Answering these and other questions through quantitative, qualitative, or mixed-methods studies is an important first step. The second step is for researchers and policy organizations to make sure school finance research and data are more accessible, easier to understand, and more translatable to policymaking and the political process.

Are we ready?

While I’ll be on the lookout for 2020 candidates’ views on and proposals for smart school funding policies, I’m not holding my breath. Not all of the possible research or new data I’ve talked about here will be completed or even available in time to fully inform any of their plans. Still, there’s much that can be done between now and November 2020. And I’m confident that researchers who are inclined to use school finance data to respond to challenges facing schools, students, and families can sharpen public discourse around school funding, and ultimately guide us toward better policies and more equitable opportunities and outcomes for students.

There is urgency to this work. In my view, there are limited windows of opportunity to enact system-wide change in government and society, and they often come at the beginning of a new administration, right after a significant change in the political landscape.

As members of the research and policy community, are we ready for this moment?

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