Category Archives: Federal Education Policy

Updating Data Systems is a Critical Piece of State-Improved ESSA Plans

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

For the last two years, state-level Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) accountability plans ​​— which provide critical information about student achievement and school culture — have either been modified or essentially on pause due to COVID-19-related school closures. From canceling statewide assessments to variability in how attendance was taken, the lack of high-quality and reliable data made it difficult for states to follow their original ESSA accountability plans. 

However, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) signaled that states must restart ESSA accountability plans and identify their lowest-performing schools in fall 2022. Recognizing the impact that COVID-19 has had on schools’ and states’ ability to use indicators like test score growth and attendance, the DOE guidance specified that states can make one-year or longer-term changes to their accountability plans. The guidance also noted that in fall 2022 states’ Report Cards must contain all the data as required under ESSA, including for the 2021-22 school year (e.g., access to advanced coursework, suspension rates, math and reading proficiency, graduation rates, chronic absenteeism, and per-pupil school funding).  

These may seem like easy tasks since states already developed and implemented ESSA accountability plans and report cards. However, not all state data systems are created equal. Prior to the pandemic, Washington, D.C. and all 50 states were missing at least one data point required under ESSA. Furthermore, many ESSA accountability plans used inconsistent data and methodology to identify schools for support — particularly as it relates to English language learners, students with disabilities, students of color, and low-income students. A 2017 Bellwether analysis found that only 10 of 51 ESSA plans indicated they would incorporate student subgroup performance into rating and identifying schools for support. And, of those 10 only three — Louisiana, Minnesota, and Tennessee — provided data and information about what that would mean in practice. The other states provided broad assurances. 

Whether because of antiquated data systems, underfunding, or a lack of political will to use certain metrics, these gaps in state-level ESSA accountability data are problematic. They leave huge voids in understanding how students are doing, what’s working, and which students need support, and also hinder a state’s ability to engage in effective short- and long-term planning. 

And the problem persists over time. A 2021 analysis found that many states still don’t report on mandated metrics like participation in advanced coursework, teacher credentials, per-pupil school spending, and chronic absenteeism. Nearly 25% of states don’t include spring 2021 assessment data on their Report Cards. 

Given the negative impact that COVID-19 has had on the U.S. K-12 education system, it’s critical that states step up. We need intentional, collaborative, and thoughtful planning in order to address everything from unfinished learning to student disengagement. But this can only be done if states have access to comprehensive data that is accurate, transparent, and current. 

States are in an optimal position to invest in data system upgrades and state report cards as they rethink accountability plans. Although this kind of infrastructure investment might seem like a lesser priority, schools’ access to accurate and updated data is critical and a cost-effective investment that pays dividends in the long run. Through three major COVID-19 federal stimulus packages, state departments of education received billions of dollars to help with pandemic recovery which can include updating data systems. A May 2021 DOE FAQ gave permission and encouraged states to use COVID-19 American Rescue Plan (ARP) Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) dollars to improve their data systems. 

Many states are taking advantage of the federal funding. A June 2021 analysis found that 29 states designated some money to improve data systems and analysis capacity to better support students. For example:

  • Arkansas is using ARP dollars to launch SmartData Dashboards, an automated early warning and intervention dashboard that will help districts identify students who are off-track from graduation and implement the appropriate interventions. 
  • Connecticut is using ESSER funds to establish the COVID-19 Education Research Collaborative — a partnership with researchers from the University of Connecticut and other state universities, local representatives, and educators. The Collaborative is a long-term investment that utilizes statewide data to track the efficacy of programs and provide accurate information to the public. 
  • Minnesota is investing $6 million in ARP dollars to update Ed-Fi, a new statewide data system that will consolidate multiple data systems into one. This will allow the state to track student data in a more timely manner and identify trends in student experiences and outcomes. 
  • Missouri is using $4.3 million in Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act dollars to update its 15-year-old longitudinal data system, which will increase its capacity to collect and analyze data on individual students. 

These state-level data improvements are a step in the right direction. However, it’s critical that data system upgrades and accountability plans center all students’ needs — particularly for historically marginalized student populations. The federal funding and policy window is there to pave the way. Will states seize the opportunity?

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.

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.

 

How Inequities in Housing Affect Education — and Vice Versa

Photo courtesy of cottonbro for Pexels

As part of the Priced Out of Public Schools: District Lines, Housing Access, and Inequitable Educational Options release, Bellwether asked housing expert Malcom Glenn to weigh in on how finance and inequity in education and housing shortchange millions of students and families across the country.

There’s an old adage in politics, repeated in some form by everyone from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Sen. Tim Scott to President Barack Obama: a person’s ZIP code should not determine their destiny. More often than not, the two factors at the intersection of ZIP codes and social determinants are fair housing and education. Policymakers tend to think of these as separate issues and address them in silos. But from an equity perspective, rarely do you find two issues as inextricably linked — or as generationally interrelated — as housing and education.

Housing is the foundation for much of what comes after in a person’s life — the Urban Institute called it “the first rung on the ladder to economic opportunity,” and the absence of stable housing has significant negative impacts on health outcomes, family well-being, and overall quality of life.

Discrepancies in quality related to both housing and education are unfortunately the result of intentional decisions: just a few of the countless outgrowths of America’s history of racial discrimination. Not all of them show up in concrete, government-backed policies. As author Richard Rothstein writes, much of these discriminatory practices amounted to de facto segregation, where private actors were free to discriminate without any engagement from policymakers. That began a cycle that persists today.

From real estate agents unwilling to sell homes to people of color to discrimination in appraisals to mortgage lenders offering significantly higher interest rates to prospective Black borrowers, racist policies depressed Black wealth creation for generations. As white families in previously more racially diverse neighborhoods were able to favorably engage in the house-buying market, they moved elsewhere, and Black residents maintained significantly less net worth than their white counterparts. Over time, key pieces of infrastructure were at best, neglected, and at worst, purposefully used to further separate, segregate, and subjugate Black families and neighborhoods.

As property values dropped, there was less tax revenue to help fund investment in improving public school quality, widening the gap between high- and low-quality schools. As students at underfunded schools continued to see lower educational attainment, it deterred families from moving to those neighborhoods and further exacerbated plummeting property values in these communities. Without significant growth in property values, families remained stuck in a cycle of limited housing options resulting in limited educational options — the limits of which were passed on from generation to generation. In the past decade, housing costs near high-performing K-12 public schools were more than twice as much as costs near low-scoring public schools, according to a 2012 Brookings Institution report.

Data from recent years shows the results of more than a half-century of policies, neglect, and cyclical marginalization, and it starts at the very beginning of a child’s educational journey and continues as long as they’re in school. According to a 2016 report, there’s an association between lower kindergarten readiness scores and “cumulative exposure to poor-quality housing and disadvantaged neighborhoods.” 

Research from that same year also found that household crowding — defined as having more people living in a home than there are rooms — has a direct impact on educational attainment, particularly during a student’s high school years. And passing rates in virtually every subject are lower for children experiencing homelessness than children in stable housing situations. It’s not just the students who suffer from housing difficulties, either. Increases in teacher pay have been outpaced by rising home prices, making many teachers significantly more likely to depart their jobs in high-cost school districts within just two years. 

Fixing this problem requires addressing the fundamentally interrelated aspects of fair housing and education. Policymakers, education advocates, families, and more should consider a range of solutions, including the following.

It’s these types of efforts that will make housing more equitable in its own right, while importantly creating better educational attainment. And it speaks to a philosophical shift that can and should occur, with a clear recognition of the impact of quality housing policy on good education policy. Too often, a person’s ZIP code still does determine their destiny. It’s only by unraveling the inequitable policies of the past and leveraging smart policies of today that we can provide better futures for America’s schoolchildren.

Malcom Glenn is a fellow at New America’s Future of Land and Housing Program and the director of public affairs at Better, a platform that makes homeownership easier and more accessible. He’s a former national director of communications at the American Federation for Children

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.