Using School Finance Data to Increase Equity

A large amount of money is spent every year to support our schools, teachers and students. With the passage of ESSA, states are now required to collect and report the actual per-pupil expenditure of every school in each district across the state. This information is an opportunity to be used as a tool to increase equity and ensure that the students who need the most support and resources are receiving it. As with any new data, there is always the potential for it to be misinterpreted and taken out of context, so it is critical to understand how school finance data should be viewed and interpreted.

Many may think that equitable spending is equal spending, meaning that every school should spend the same per pupil. That, however, is not the case. Not only do students and schools have different needs that can affect spending, but schools also have different situations and programs which bring different costs.

Equitable spending does not mean equal spending. To use finance data to promote equal spending would, in fact, defeat the purpose. The data should be used to dig into how districts and schools are spending the money. Districts and schools with more high-need students, for example English Language Learners, those from low-income backgrounds, and those requiring special education services, require greater resources, which in turn requires a greater level of financial support.

Access to school spending data allows us to compare the student expenditure of schools within a district, but it must be done with a careful eye. One must look at the student population, special programs available, and specific school situations to understand how the money is being spent. This will lead to important conversations about educational spending and equity and ensure that students who need additional supports and resources are receiving them.

But it is not enough to simply report the per-pupil expenditure for each school. In order to create a well-informed and well-equipped community of educational leaders and advocates, the data must be reliable, easily accessible and include a detailed breakdown of the spending that shows disaggregated spending categories and comparative data. It is not enough to simply break down spending by source (federal, state, and local funds), as many states have done. For example, several states disaggregate their data to show what portion is spent on instructional costs, personnel, building maintenance, and shared district costs. This is key to allowing stakeholders and leaders to really use the data to drive informed decision making.

Like all school and district level data, expenditure data is another tool that can be used to start meaningful conversations to improve equity and outcomes for our schools. School spending data is by no means a silver bullet to correct all the ills that plague our schools, but it is an important way to ensure the students who need more intense support services and resources to be successful are receiving them.

Christy Grubb currently serves as a Kindergarten teacher in Sevier County in East Tennessee. With a tenure of twenty-five years as an early elementary educator, Christy is dedicated to the development of early literacy as a foundational lever and predictor of reading success. While serving as a Model Classroom teacher within her home district and as an EPP (Educator Preparatory Program) evaluator for Colleges of Education across the state, Christy has influenced teacher training and helped to build knowledge capacity for educators at various levels of professional experience.