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Thursday, August 24, 2017

In Education, Follow the Money

From Education Week

By Mike Magee
July 27, 2017

In the Watergate movie "All the President’s Men," the secret source Deep Throat whispers some now-legendary wisdom: “Follow the money.”

The line encapsulates an important fact: If you want to know the truth, you have to know where the money is going.

That’s especially true in education, where hot-button issues of funding fairness are deeply connected to questions of justice and opportunity.

Variations in wealth and tax bases—and choices by leaders—have profound consequences for school funding.

Public systems are charged with ensuring fairness and opportunity, but it is not often clear which systems, schools, and classrooms are getting what. And too often, the most vulnerable students lose out.

The good news is that under the Every Student Succeeds Act, following the money is going to get a lot easier. The law puts us on a better track and brings greater transparency—a level of transparency that is going to create some hard but healthy conversations to advance school equity.

The challenge is clear. Students living in poverty and students of color are less than half as likely to be proficient in 4th grade math as their peers. And yet, across the country, we seriously underfund the schools and teachers serving those very students.

On average, high-poverty districts get about $1,200 per student less than low-poverty districts each year, and districts with the most students of color get about $2,000 per student less than districts with the least.

What’s more, within districts, the schools that need the most often get even less.

Yet even the people running these systems lack insight into those differences, because they themselves lack the tools to follow the money. The education leaders I work with are deeply passionate about serving all kids, and especially those who need the most support, but obsolete data and finance systems make spending patterns opaque.

Enter ESSA, which requires states and districts to report per-pupil expenditures down to the school level starting in the 2017-18 school year. This exciting change also brings anxiety and challenges because the shift requires expertise, money, and time.

At Chiefs for Change, we’ve set up a network where leading education chiefs can share ideas and offer models for the country. We believe financial transparency, beyond just compliance with the law, will provide fair and strong support of underserved kids.

Our research has found that higher spending does not necessarily mean better services for students. The school may be smaller, the needs of its student population may be greater, or it may have a broader grade configuration.

Some spending “inequities” are actually deliberate and strategic. For example, smaller schools may be more expensive to operate, but having a greater number of them allows more kids to attend school in their neighborhood.

This isn’t about limiting options; it’s about understanding the trade-offs and making clear-eyed, equitable decisions.

Because equity isn’t the same as equality. All schools don’t get the same thing when you distribute dollars based on need. But when we make these decisions transparent, we ultimately have a better shot of making them according to shared values.

Forcing important conversations won’t make the decisions easy. But it will make them better.

Mike Magee is CEO of Chiefs for Change, a nonprofit that supports state and district education leaders.

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