Author Archives: Jennifer O'Neal Schiess

Want More Equitable Schools? Look at Housing and District Boundary Policies.

In a new report, Alex Spurrier, Sara Hodges, and I outline the very real impact of policy decisions across housing, funding, and education, made at all levels of government. 

In Priced Out of Public Schools: District Lines, Housing Access, and Inequitable Educational Options, how district boundaries are drawn and where accessible housing is located means that low-income families are priced out of some school districts and segregated from more affluent families. This isn’t only exclusion from certain public schools, but also exclusion from academic opportunities (such as magnet schools or Advanced Placement courses) and extracurricular activities. 

In looking at the 200 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, we found nearly 500 “barrier borders” across the country that have deep funding implications:

  • 12.8 million students live in districts with a high concentration of low-income housing and generate $6,355 per-pupil less in school funding from local, state, and federal sources than their affluent peers in districts with inaccessible housing.
  • Districts with inaccessible housing have an average of $4,664 more per-pupil than the “average” district, while districts with accessible housing have $1,691 less per-pupil than the “average” district.

This work joins a cadre of important studies and news media coverage on how seemingly random boundaries and borders are actually deliberate policy decisions. (Check out the Urban Institute’s latest study on within-district attendance boundaries and race, as well as the archives from EdBuild.)

Simply put, this is an intentional policy decision — sometimes made decades ago, but not always. We can also intentionally address it.

If we want equitable schools, I’ve long argued for making funding more equitable

The radical, but swift policy solution would be to decouple the real estate market from school funding, allowing local property taxes to play a minimal role in funding schools (if at all). Instead, states could create a state-funded education system (essentially replacing local funding) and distribute that funding equitably and based on student needs. 

Alternatively, if the policy landscape makes replacing local property taxes nearly impossible, states could seriously invest their dollars in leveling the playing field so that communities with higher property values do not continue to systematically disadvantage lower-income communities. 

There are also ways to fiddle around the ends if using property taxes for school funding continues, including the state limiting how much property taxes can be used locally and redistributing any amounts over the cap.

But changing funding isn’t the only avenue to pursue. States and locales could simply eliminate the mismatch between school district boundaries and city or county limits. It’s hard to imagine a rationale for one city, such as greater Chicago, to have 353 districts (and 45 barrier borders). Which also makes it hard to imagine what the rationale of these policies might be, if not the resulting exclusion of some families from some schools and resources. States with the highest number of school districts also tend to have the greatest number of barrier borders: eight of the 10 states that account for 70% of the nation’s barrier borders also rank in the top 10 states for highest number of school districts. Some metropolitan areas may be too big to have one mega-school district, but drawing boundary lines to explicitly divide communities based on income is inequitable and wrong.

Finally, there is a role that the federal government can play, and that’s in housing policy. At a baseline, there should be more low-income housing in more communities. The reality is that the need for low-income housing far outpaces the supply of affordable options, and sequestering low-income families together (particularly when physically far from important educational and other resources) is inequitable.

With the infusion of funds from the federal government, now is the time to reexamine and redraw what may seem like random funding, housing, and boundary decisions that are far from random. They are indeed intentional. The question is, can we be intentional about creating a more equitable landscape?

Priced Out of Public Schools: District Lines, Housing Access, and Inequitable Educational Options is part of an ongoing Bellwether examination of how finance and inequity in education shortchange millions of students and families.

 

Four Questions About the Biden Administration’s Title I Equity Grants Program

Photo courtesy of Aaron Kittredge for Pexels

President Biden’s Fiscal Year 2022 budget proposes $20 billion in funding for a new Title I Equity Grants program that has the potential to incentivize changes to school funding systems, with a primary goal of improving equity and driving resources to support students with the greatest needs. Eligible school districts and charter schools (local education agencies, or LEAs) receiving these funds can use them to address four priority areas:

  • Address long-standing disparities between under-resourced school districts and their wealthier counterparts by providing meaningful incentives to examine and address inequalities in school funding systems.
  • Ensure that teachers at Title I schools are paid competitively.
  • Increase preparation for, access to, and success in rigorous coursework. 
  • Expand access to high-quality preschool for underserved children and families.

The first priority area focuses on funding equity, which means ensuring that districts and schools direct more resources to the students who need them the most. The Biden administration is looking to use the relatively small pot of federal education funds (as a share of total school funding) to push greater equity in the much larger pot of state and local school funding systems (which generate and distribute about 90% of total money for schools). Just as a small lever can move a large object, a targeted funding program could have an outsized impact with the right incentives. And that’s the potential of this ambitious proposal. But there’s still a lot to figure out, if and when this new program comes to fruition. 

Title I is one of the largest federal funding streams for K-12 education and is primarily directed by a formula for schools and districts serving high proportions of low-income students to provide supplemental educational supports. Biden’s proposal would not change the structure or formula for Title I. Instead, it would create a new grant program on top of current Title I structures. This new grant would rely on a different allocation formula that targets a greater share of funds to LEAs with the greatest concentrations of poverty. This is significant, because it might signal a step towards changing the Title I formula as a whole. 

The FY22 budget proposal is still in its early stages and requires congressional approval and a lot more work to iron out details. If this proposal is ultimately implemented, four key questions that advocates nationwide should be asking include:

1. Will recipients of these funds need to address all four priorities, or can they pick and choose? 

School funding reform is challenging work that often requires a significant investment of political and financial capital. If states can opt to apply funds to other priorities that may be relatively easier to implement, what’s the incentive to engage in broad, meaningful funding reform?

2. What are the expectations for the state-level School Funding Equity Commissions and the plans they develop?

The proposal includes allocating $50 million to voluntary School Funding Equity Commissions. These state commissions would measure gaps in funding equity and adequacy, develop plans to address those gaps, and report progress on the milestones and metrics set forth in those plans. However, it’s not clear if the commissions are focused on allocations of funding through state funding formulas or the allocation of funds from districts out to schools at the local level, or both? These two processes are typically separate and have different equity challenges and potential remedies. Both allocation structures can force equity, and both can be politically and practically complex.  

3. How do the school-level reporting requirements relate to similar requirements under current federal law? Does the Title I Equity Grants program represent a change to those provisions? If not, what does this FY22 proposal intend to achieve?

The process of defining a common definition of per pupil expenditure at the LEA or school level is more complex than it may sound on its face. Given that a similar provision aimed at promoting transparency regarding school-level spending already exists in law, it’s not clear what this proposal aims to achieve that’s different. Transparency can be a powerful tool for equity, but not if adding a new calculation muddies an already poorly understood concept.

4. Finally, how will the Title I Equity Grants program ensure that state plans for funding equity are effective for students with the greatest needs?

Some reporting language indicates that states will need to, “Demonstrate progress in improving the equity and adequacy of their funding systems to be eligible for future increases in funding.” Does that mean that future Title I allocations will include incentives for demonstrated progress toward equity (and adequacy) goals? Is this a carrot or a stick, how much funding might be somehow contingent, and how will “progress” be defined especially to ensure that more funding is directed to student groups who need additional resources, including students with disabilities and English language learners? 

The Biden administration’s Title I Equity Grants program brings welcome attention to a foundational issue for educational equity — ensuring that students who need the most resources receive them. While the FY22 proposal faces significant congressional and administrative hurdles, it highlights the need to address funding inequities in state and school district spending plans. Ultimately, the proposal has the potential to be an effective lever for change if it can set up meaningful incentives for states and districts and define success through prioritizing the needs of our most marginalized students. 

Everything You Always Wanted to Ask About School Finance But Were Afraid to Ask

How do individual schools get their funds from districts, how do districts get funding from states, and how do states generate revenue for education?

These are little-understood mechanisms, and what’s more, the way we finance schools looks different in almost every community because of statutory structures and local context.

There’s a lot of prognosticating going around about how school budgets will look next calendar and school year due to COVID-19, but the economic shock flowing through the education sector needs to be tempered with some fact checking and clarity. In my previous life, I advised the Texas legislature on public education budgeting and school finance, so I’m here to simplify the complex so education leaders can get a clear and accurate understanding of how funding actually trickles down.

After you read these FAQs, check out the rest of The Looming Financial Crisis? series for key takeaways for school districts, state education agencies, individual schools, charter networks, and more:

  1. Where does most school funding come from?
  2. Where do state dollars for education come from?
  3. What about local dollars? Where do those come from?
  4. Why can’t we predict next year’s school budgets? Shouldn’t school funding already have decreased since many people are out of work and probably not paying income taxes?
  5. What are a few different scenarios you could imagine for schools?
  6. What are the first things to go when a school leader has reduced funds to work with?
  7. Don’t governments have reserves they can lean on during tough times?
  8. If a state or district leader wants to prepare for different possible economic impacts, what should they be doing?
  9. What if I want to get wonky and learn more about this?

Where does most school funding come from?

The first common misunderstanding is about where the bulk of school-level education funding actually comes from: your local community, your state, or the federal government.

The answer is it’s all three, but not the breakdown you might assume. As the chart below shows, funding for education, on average is mostly from state and local governments, about a 50-50 split, with only 8-10% coming from the federal government. It is worth noting that while these proportions of state and local funds are true on average, tremendous variability in how much funding comes from state versus local sources exists between and even within states, depending largely on the structure of state school funding formulas.

The two largest sources of federal funds from the U.S. Department of Education are Title I, which targets funding to schools serving low-income students, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (or IDEA), which supports students with disabilities. In addition to these large programs, the federal government also runs grant programs to support other initiatives including teacher quality, early childhood education, and charter schools. And the federal government heavily subsidizes school meals, which is the largest source of federal funding flowing into schools, through the free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But the bulk of funding that supports educator salaries and benefits, instructional materials for students, construction and maintenance of school facilities, school transportation systems, and all the other core ingredients for school operations are funded from state and local funds.

Where do state dollars for education come from?

Most states get most of their revenue from income and sales taxes. Different states tax different purchases differently (e.g., some states exempt select purchases considered to be basic needs, like food and medicine), and some don’t charge any income or sales tax at all. There are nine states with no personal income tax, but several of those have some other tax source to fill the gap (like Alaska and Texas, which generate significant revenue from the oil and gas industry). Most states have a mix of other taxes and fees they may levy on businesses, tourism, or other specific activities. But across the country, personal income tax and sales tax provide the lion’s share of state tax revenue.

State tax dollars pay for a range of services, with the largest proportion of state investments in most states going to K-12 public education. Beyond K-12 education, significant state spending goes to public higher education systems, health care (especially Medicaid, which is jointly funded from state and federal sources), criminal justice systems (state law enforcement, court, and prison systems), social services (like child protective services and administration of family supports), economic and workforce development, and regulatory functions (like licensing child care facilities or various professional licenses). Many of these functions are also supported with federal and/or local funds.  Continue reading

Stop Saying “At Least We’re Not Mississippi”: A Q&A With Rachel Canter of Mississippi First

There’s a tired trope in Southern states: “At least we’re not Mississippi.” The implication is that while one’s state may be underperforming on some measure — poverty, rates of uninsured, education outcomes, etc. — Mississippi can always be counted on to look worse. 

Having grown up, taught school, and worked in education policy across the South my whole life (but not in Mississippi), I’ve heard this statement plenty. I heard it as recently as this fall at a conference, leveled by a national thought leader who ought to know better. 

Last spring, Bellwether released “Education in the American South,” a data-filled report which highlighted, among other things, how the national education reform conversation has largely bypassed the South — a conclusion bolstered by the persistence of this Mississippi myth.

Here’s the thing: While many of us look down our noses, Mississippi has been working hard — and it’s been paying off. In the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores, Mississippi was the only state to see improvements in reading and had the biggest gains in fourth-grade reading and math. Mississippi’s gains have been nearly continuous over the last 16 years and mostly unmatched in the region.

To dig more deeply into what’s gone right in Mississippi, I talked to Rachel Canter, longtime Mississippian and co-founder and Executive Director of Mississippi First, an education policy, research, and advocacy nonprofit working to ensure that every Mississippi student has access to excellent schools.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The most recent NAEP results highlight the progress schools and students in MIssissippi have made, but 2019 isn’t the beginning of this story. When did the tide start to turn and why? Continue reading

Building a School Performance Framework for System Management and Accountability? Lessons From Washington, D.C.

At its core, a school performance framework (SPF) is a data-based tool to support local decision making. An SPF designed for system management and accountability provides data and information about system-wide goals to district- or city-level leaders overseeing multiple schools, helps leaders hold schools accountable for student outcomes, allows leaders to understand which schools are performing well and which are not, and informs system-wide improvement strategies and the equitable allocation of resources. 

Our recent publication “School Performance Frameworks: Lessons, Cases, and Purposeful Design,” a website and report available at SchoolPerformanceFrameworks.org, identifies system management and accountability as one of three primary “use cases” that can shape SPF design decisions. A “use case” (a concept borrowed from the field of technology and design) helps designers think through their end users’ needs. Our work imagines local leaders as designers and considers how the choices they make can meet the needs of different end users, including parents, school principals, and district leaders. Among the five long-standing SPFs we looked at in detail for our project, four prioritized the use case of system management and accountability in their SFP design. 

We also found that too many SPFs try to fulfill multiple uses at once, without clearly thinking through priorities and potential tradeoffs. This post is the third in a series that looks at SPFs through the lens of each use case to highlight design considerations and relevant examples.

SPFs built for system management and accountability can inform consequential decisions made at the district level about which schools should be rewarded, replicated, or expanded, and which ones require improvement, intervention, and possibly closure. These SPFs get the most attention when the data they produce result in school closures or other highly visible consequences. While closures may grab headlines and garner resentment for SPFs, a well-designed SPF can actually inject transparency, equity, and fairness into even the most challenging decisions and increase opportunities for students and families by highlighting success and supporting the expansion of quality school options. 

An SPF created for system management and accountability should include:

Continue reading