Author Archives: Alex Spurrier

Three Ways Policymakers Can Expand Educational Options for Students

Children across the country are living through a tumultuous two years that have had an undeniable impact on their education and development. But the effects haven’t been felt evenly by all students. Declines in K-12 reading and math performance have been more pronounced in schools that serve lower-income communities and in schools that largely serve Black and Latino students. 

These inequities predate 2020, but it’s clear that the range and severity of student learning needs amid the pandemic are significantly more complex than they were before COVID-19. America’s K-12 education system needs to respond with options that are diverse, flexible, and accessible to meet the varied educational needs of students and families moving forward. 

As described in Expanding Educational Options: Emergent Policy Trends by co-authors Lynne Graziano, Brian Robinson, Juliet Squire, and me, policymakers in states across the country have made meaningful progress to create and expand learning options for students on three fronts, but more must be done to make those opportunities equitable and accessible to all.

1. Expand Traditional School Choice Options

The first and most traditional front for expanding educational options is through expanded access to school choice options. This includes policies that increase opportunities within the public school system through charter schools and open enrollment. It could also take the form of policies that provide access to full-time learning options outside of the public sector through vouchers, tax credit scholarships, or policies to support home-schooling.

Recent legislation expanding access to school choice options tends to focus on increasing funding for private school choice programs and/or expanding student eligibility criteria for those programs. One example of this is Florida’s HB 7045, which both increased funding and expanded student eligibility for private school choice programs.

2. Provide Equitable Access for All Students

Second, policymakers are enacting legislation to reduce barriers that stand between students and already-available educational opportunities beyond their residentially assigned public school. 

States like Tennessee and West Virginia passed bills to reduce administrative barriers to improve the transparency and accessibility of open enrollment opportunities. Other states, like Arizona and Texas, passed legislation to reduce transportation barriers to improve student access to educational options. 

3. Enact More Flexible Learning Options

Finally, there is increasing policy support for more flexible learning options that provide students with opportunities to replace or supplement full-time schooling. Most recently, this has taken the form of states passing or expanding Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) that provide families with flexible funding to support tuition, tutoring, or other educational services for their children, like West Virginia’s HB 2013

Other states, like Georgia, have passed legislation to protect a pandemic-era innovation: learning pods. And Montana’s HB 246 creates opportunities for students to participate in and earn credit for work-based learning.

These policy innovations are welcome developments for families and students looking for more flexible and customized learning options, but much more needs to be done to ensure that these opportunities are available to all families. For instance, families need accurate and accessible information on the array of schooling options available for their children, and how to take advantage of them. Transportation and other logistical barriers still serve as insurmountable barriers for far too many families. And as more students are educated by an increasing number of providers, policymakers must consider how the ecosystem of K-12 educational entities can securely share data with one another to support a child’s success. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the complex and urgent needs students face; families deserve access to a wider range of educational opportunities to meet the specific needs of their children. Policymakers must act to better serve students’ needs moving forward.

An “Abundance Agenda” Must Include K-12 Schooling

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Scarcity is a familiar concept to economists, but most Americans don’t need to crack open a textbook to understand its impact right now. Walking through my local grocery store, there are barren produce displays and freezers with only a fraction of the products they typically stock. And I’ve had to scour the greater Louisville, Kentucky region to find at-home COVID-19 tests for sale.

In a thought-provoking new piece for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson argues that the problem of scarcity isn’t just limited to grocery stores and pharmacies it’s a societywide challenge that we ought to address.

“Altogether, America has too much venting and not enough inventing. We say that we want to save the planet from climate change — but in practice, many Americans are basically dead set against the clean-energy revolution, with even liberal states shutting down zero-carbon nuclear plants and protesting solar-power projects. We say that housing is a human right — but our richest cities have made it excruciatingly difficult to build new houses, infrastructure, or megaprojects. Politicians say that they want better health care — but they tolerate a catastrophically slow-footed FDA that withholds promising tools, and a federal policy that deliberately limits the supply of physicians.”

But there’s a significant sector missing from Thompson’s analysis of our scarcity challenge: K-12 education.

Public schooling is supposed to be a public good that provides equitable access to educational opportunities for all children, in the same way that public parks provide everyone with an opportunity to enjoy natural beauty in our communities.

For many families, however, access to a quality public education is an unfulfilled promise.

Scarcity in K-12 schooling is a much more opaque phenomenon than in higher education. We can easily monitor the ever-rising cost of college tuition, but most parents don’t pay tuition for K-12 schools. Instead, the “price” of attending public schools is embedded in rent or mortgage payments.

Affluent families have an abundance of educational options: they can afford to pay for tuition at private schools, buy a home in sought-after school districts, and provide their children with supplementary learning opportunities like tutoring, music lessons, and athletic programs.

Lower-income families face many more barriers to educational opportunity. Public schools are often their only educational option. As my colleagues and I showed in Priced Out of Public Schools, they also face scarcity in public schooling opportunities due to a combination of where affordable rental housing is located and how school district boundaries are drawn.

Thompson argues for a national “abundance agenda” to address problems created by scarcity. In K-12 education, that could mean an expansion of educational opportunities, particularly for lower-income families.

There are systemic ways to achieve abundance in educational opportunities. We could tackle reforms to update district boundaries more frequently — similar to how we engage in redistricting for legislative seats — to provide better, more equitable access to public K-12 schooling opportunities. Other efforts could expand access to nonpublic education options, as 18 states did in 2021.

Reformers can also expand educational opportunities within the public school system more incrementally through public charter schools. A recently-announced $750 million grant-making effort to support the expansion of public charter schools could serve as a catalyst for a broader reinvigoration of the charter sector, as my colleague Andy Rotherham notes in his latest for The 74.

For too long, families have not had access to the schooling options their children deserve. An “abundance agenda” for educational opportunity has the potential to garner support from the left, right, and center of our increasingly polarized nation and, more importantly, to provide children with equitable access to the public schools they deserve.

Splitting the Bill: Understanding Education Finance Equity

School finance poses a unique challenge for policymakers and advocates alike. The consequences of school finance policy are monumental for students — it has a direct effect on the educational opportunities they will be able to access. At the same time, the complicated mechanics of how dollars move from taxpayers to classrooms can rival that of high-end Swiss watches.

Changing how dollars are raised and distributed to be more clearly aligned with student and community needs is essential to building a higher-performing, more equitable system of public education. But doing so requires a deep understanding of the policy gears and springs that power the movement of educational dollars. It’s critical that policymakers and advocates concerned with educational excellence and equity build fluency in the details of school finance systems.

Splitting the Bill, a new series of Bellwether education finance equity briefs, serves as a crash-course to demystify complexities embedded in school finance systems.

A good place to start? Understanding that where the money for public schools comes from creates challenges for policymakers. The vast majority of funding for K-12 schools comes from state and local governments (federal funding accounts for less than 10% of public school revenues), but the combination of state and local dollars often looks different from district to district. That variance is a product of two important variables: 1) the taxable property wealth per-pupil within a district, and 2) the level of student learning needs. Districts that have relatively less taxable property wealth and relatively higher student learning needs should receive more funding from the state to account for those differences.

Unfortunately, that’s not always how it plays out in practice. State school funding formulas take many different forms and attempt to account for the different wealth and student learning needs of school districts, but often fall short. These shortcomings can have many sources, from opaque formulas disconnected from student needs to inadequate “weights” to support students with particular learning needs (e.g., low-income students, English language learners, and special education students). In many states, problems in state school finance systems have led to litigation that can catalyze policy change.

Reading our Splitting the Bill series is a good way to better understand school finance generally, but true fluency in your state’s school funding system requires analyzing a lot of data and legislation. That technical work should start with collecting, cleaning, and exploring district demographic and finance data from state and federal sources, paired with building knowledge of your state’s funding policies and any relevant litigation.

Building this understanding isn’t easy — it requires a strong technical and analytical skill set. It’s why we’re developing these skills through a series of school finance equity training sessions with a cohort of state-level policy advocacy organizations. We’re building their capacity to use R to clean, analyze, and visualize school finance data from their states with the goal of pursuing reforms that create more equitable funding systems.

Developing a command of the details within school funding systems can reveal both the benign and malign impacts of different policy choices. Spending on K-12 education makes up the largest share of general fund expenditures for state governments, but there are relatively few people in each state that truly understand how those dollars currently move and, more importantly, how they should move to better serve students.

It’s time for more equity-minded policymakers and advocates to take a deep dive into the wonky details of school finance policy.

Opinion: Get Michigan’s Thousands of Missing Kids Back in School This Fall

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

As schools nationwide look ahead to the start of the 2021-22 school year and spend federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, there’s a group of students at risk of being overlooked: those who didn’t show up in public schools last year. In most states, these missing students outnumber the largest school districts

Michigan is no exception, where Alex Spurrier argues that its public schools, along with other states and communities across the country, must identify and meet the needs of missing students this fall:

“In Michigan, more than 61,000 students didn’t enroll in public school between 2019-20 and 2020-21. That’s more students than make up Detroit Public Schools. And Michigan isn’t alone: Washington State saw enrollment declines of 55,000 students — more than students enrolled in Seattle Public Schools. Maine, Missouri and Vermont also have total enrollment drops greater than their largest school district. In seven other states, the size of the enrollment drop was only eclipsed by the largest school district.

The scale of disruption to children, families and school communities is massive. It’s also widely dispersed within each state, which can obscure the magnitude. Policymakers must respond to the staggering but disparate problem of enrollment declines.”

Will leaders act urgently to meet missing students’ needs, even as everyone is exhausted and just wants a return to normal?

Support local journalism by reading more from Alex Spurrier’s op-ed featured in The Detroit News here.

Is Curriculum Infrastructure?

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Hopes for a bipartisan infrastructure bill may be fading, but there is growing interest in instructional infrastructure in the form of high-quality curriculum. 

Last month, I argued that policymakers and education leaders ought to start treating curriculum like infrastructure. A high-quality, coherent curriculum should provide every student and educator with a solid foundation upon which excellent instruction can be built. Unfortunately, policymakers often defer responsibility to the lowest levels, creating a status quo where educators spend more than 12 hours a week creating or curating instructional materials.

What needs to be done? 

It’s an important question at the core of a podcast conversation I had on Melissa and Lori Love Literacy. We covered four key ways to develop more schools where instruction, learning, and professional development are centered around high-quality, coherent curricula. 

1. High-quality curriculum should serve as a foundation for post-pandemic teaching and learning

School systems will undoubtedly use federal recovery funding to address the wide range of post-pandemic student learning needs. We’re likely to see tutoring programs and efforts to remediate (or accelerate) student learning during the 2021-22 school year, but will they have a meaningful impact on students?

Absent a strong curriculum that clearly articulates the knowledge and skills students ought to acquire, many of these efforts will fail to produce positive outcomes for students. This is a particular risk in non-math subject areas, where there are fewer direct connections between state standards and specific content knowledge. 

If school system leaders aren’t centering their learning recovery efforts around high-quality curricula, now is the time to start moving in that direction.

2. Curriculum is an under-utilized lever for equity

There are two ways in which curriculum can serve as a lever for equity in schools. First and foremost, high-quality curricula can reduce the gaps in background knowledge for students. We have mountains of examples, from the baseball study to the works of E.D. Hirsch and Natalie Wexler, that show the immense impact increased background knowledge can have on student learning. Well-structured, knowledge-building curricula can ensure that students in different classrooms or different schools have access to a similar body of topics and content. 

Secondly, strong curricula can improve equity by increasing the efficacy of early-career educators. More often than not, schools that serve highest-needs students are staffed with less experienced educators than schools with lower-needs students. Ensuring that teachers don’t have to spend upwards of 12 hours a week on instructional materials is a big step toward improving the quality of early-career educators. Supporting educators with a strong curriculum can help them focus on instructional delivery and building a strong classroom culture — a shift that would help early-career educators the most and, in turn, their highest-needs students.

3. Policymakers should focus on transparency

When William Goldman said of the movie industry, “nobody knows anything,” he could have been speaking about curriculum in K-12 schools. It’s unfortunately rare for a state education agency to have a solid understanding of what is actually being taught in its classrooms. Even though districts and schools may have adopted curricula on paper, teachers may not have support or resources to implement it with fidelity. 

Policymakers must reduce the opacity that obscures what curricula actually get taught in classrooms. One way is by reporting adopted curricula at the district and school level, along with surveys of educators to gauge to what degree adopted curricular materials are actually used in their instruction. 

4. Everyone involved in schools can work to move the needle on curricular transparency and quality

No matter your position in K-12 schools — as an educator, a policymaker, a parent/guardian, or a concerned taxpayer — everyone can play a role in driving improvements in curricular quality. State leaders can build support for more transparency around curriculum. District leaders can more thoughtfully engage in the curriculum adoption process. Educators can advocate for more curriculum-aligned professional development. Families and taxpayers may not want to engage in the wonky details of curriculum, but they, too, can play a role by asking schools a simple question: “What books can you guarantee my child will read during the next school year in (insert grade level/subject)?” 

The school year ahead will include innumerable ongoing challenges associated with the pandemic. Ensuring that school leaders and teachers have access to high-quality curricula is one way to build back better.