Category Archives: Federal Education Policy

What Bellwether Is Watching Out For in Election 2020

That there’s a lot at stake in this election is obvious. And there is a lot at stake for schools even as they’ve been mostly an afterthought on the campaign trail. There are immediate questions about COVID-19 relief and, going forward, big questions for early education, higher education, assessment, accountability, and choice policies for K-12 schools. 

This is nothing new: Bellwether has an entire genre of blog posts about how little education gets talked about during presidential debates, vice presidential debates, State of the Union addresses, and other federal policy conversations. And while single-issue education voters may not be unicorns, they are pretty rare.  

At Bellwether we track the election and what it means for clients, and we pay attention to the context and conditions schools operate in. Our team is united by a shared mission of improving life and education outcomes for underserved students, but we differ about how best to do that — and, by extension, about politics. But like everyone, we are paying close attention this year.

Here’s some of what we are watching for: Continue reading

ICYMI: Is There or Isn’t There a Looming Fiscal Cliff for Education?

Throughout the past month, Bellwether has weighed in on the financial health of schools in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, with different reactions, resources, and recommendations from across our team. In case you missed it, here’s a quick recap: 

You can read all the posts in the series here, and we welcome your reactions! Thanks for following along.

The Looming Financial Crisis? Resources for the Education Sector

Efforts to lift economy could tip off a financial crisis.” School districts brace for cuts.” Will the Banks Collapse?

With headlines like these making the rounds, there’s no way to avoid questions about how the COVID-19 pandemic has and will impact the economy — and in turn, America’s schools. The uncertainty is very real, and the consequences could be as well, but how can education leaders make sense of often contradictory and evolving prognostications? And if the impact won’t be catastrophic, what is the more complicated outlook?

At Bellwether Education, we’ve worked with schools, CMOs, districts, states, and nonprofits to understand this moment, and have begun to build an understanding — unpredictable as this moment is — of where our sector is headed fiscally, how organizations and policymakers should respond, and the key variables to keep an eye on. We understand how school funding works, from the federal budget process to state legislatures to local levies, and we’ve coached hundreds of clients on planning for and through financial uncertainty. 

In this new series, The Looming Financial Crisis?, we bring our policy chops together with our practical experience with districts, schools, and networks forward to share perspectives on how a financial crisis might play out and where impacts will be felt. Some questions we’ll explore:

  • Where does school revenue come from, what do we know about how the economic downturn might affect lower income communities? 
  • How can districts and schools carry out short-term and long-term planning amidst uncertainty, while prioritizing students furthest from opportunity?
  • What are the potential impacts on private school operations, especially those private schools dedicated to serving high-need students?
  • Will an economic downturn lead to increased interest in charter school mergers, and how should school leaders approach these potential partnerships and their impact on students and school communities? 

We’re here to cut through the noise so the education sector can navigate the uncertain future as effectively and efficiently as possible. Follow along as we roll out insights targeting school districts, state education agencies, individual schools, charter networks, and more.

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

FAQs for Future Applicants to the Federal Charter School Program Grant

As applicants anxiously await the results of the FY2020 Charter School Program (CSP) State Entities grant competition, we want to offer some tips for prospective future applicants. As my Bellwether colleagues recently wrote, the CSP is a discretionary grant that provides federal resources to create, replicate, and support high-quality public charter schools. Developing a strong CSP application takes significant time and forethought. Although future funding of the CSP hangs in the balance, charter networks thinking about applying should plan far in advance to develop a strong application. 

Bellwether has partnered with a number of charter management organizations to develop winning federal education grant proposals, including CSP Replication and Expansion grants. The Frequently Asked Questions below explain what differentiates a successful application and provide advice on developing a winning proposal. 

Logistics of applying 

When should I start thinking about applying for a CSP grant? 

Six-to-eight-week turnarounds are fairly common: in 2019, the notice inviting applications appeared on November 26, 2019 and the deadline for transmittal of applications was January 10, 2020. Because the turnaround is pretty quick, occurs at a time of year when many staff may be planning time off, and the applications themselves are often over sixty pages long, preparing in advance is very helpful. 

As you think about applying, consider your network’s readiness to grow and increase impact. Indicators of readiness to grow can cross multiple dimensions, such as quality of programming, strength of student outcomes, clarity of instructional and cultural visions, student and staff retention and satisfaction, and financial health and sustainability. Bellwether offers a “Readiness to Grow” diagnostic tool that can help organizations assess their strengths and areas for focus before or during a growth process (see case study that used this tool here).  Continue reading