Category Archives: School Funding

Ballot Initiative Results in CA, WA, and Other States — and Implications for Education

On Election Day, Bellwether shared a roundup of key races and issues we are closely watching due their potential impact on education,. While the nation nervously waits for clarity in the Presidential race, the results from several important and expensive ballot initiatives have rolled in. Here are four that I’m paying attention to:

California’s Proposition 16

This ballot measure, which would have reversed the state’s longstanding ban on affirmative action in government hiring and in public university admissions, failed. After a summer marked by activism and calls for racial justice, 56% of voters in arguably the most progressive state rejected the measure. As a result of the state’s 1997 ban on affirmative action, the percent of Black students in the state’s university system has dropped in half, even as the state has produced more Black high school graduates. The ban also negatively affected the enrollment of Latino and Native American students in California’s public universities. In all, eight states have affirmative action bans similar to California’s and this loss is likely to have a chilling effect on activists looking to overturn bans in their states. 

California’s Proposition 15

The union-backed initiative that would result in higher property taxes for commercial and industry property to provide additional funding for local governments, schools, and community colleges is trailing as of this writing. Were it to pass, Proposition 15 would be the largest tax increase in California history, resulting in a net increase in tax revenues of up to $12 billion, 40% of which would go to K-12 schools and community colleges. At the time of writing, it appears that the majority of California voters will reject this tax hike and, along with it, potentially billions of additional revenue for schools.

Washington State’s Referendum 90

Washington became the first state this week to pass a comprehensive sex education mandate with nearly 60% support. The mandate requires public schools to offer families the option of age-appropriate curriculum focused on issues including human development and consent. Opponents of the measure argued inaccurately that the legislation would impede on local administrators’ ability to control the curriculum, but it appears voters were not swayed by these arguments. Washington now joins 24 other states and D.C. that require sex education. 

Multi-state Drug Reform

On Tuesday, voters across the nation sent a clear message and voted for drug policy reform. Voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota legalized marijuana for recreational purposes. In Mississippi and South Dakota, voters legalized medical marijuana. In Oregon voters decriminalized all drugs, including cocaine and heroin, and in Washington, D.C., voters decriminalized psychedelic plants (like mushrooms). With these new policies to decriminalize and legalize certain drugs will come new questions for parents and educational officials. How should officials address issues of student drug possession? What will the impact of legalization be on K-12 achievement? What rights do employees have who use recreationally? Leaders can look for some answers in Colorado, which legalized marijuana in 2012, saw the rate of teen drug use fall to its lowest level in a decade. 

Stay tuned for more Election 2020 coverage here.

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.

9 Considerations for Charter School Mergers in an Era of Limited Budgets

Since March, school funding experts have sought to understand how the economic turmoil coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic would affect school revenue. Most analysts agree that the impact will be significant and will be felt most by those who are the furthest from opportunity. Unfortunately, charter schools — which nationally enroll a student population that is 52 percent low-income, 25 percent Black, and 34 percent Hispanic — are particularly vulnerable to variations in state funding. 

Charter schools struggling with financial sustainability may consider whether the school’s mission might be better served by merging with another charter school. However, while charter school mergers can work, they are far from a simple solution and must be approached carefully.

As our colleagues Lina Bankert and Lauren Schwartze have previously written, a “merger” can take many shapes but, fundamentally, it involves joining together two or more organizations as one entity — through a formal legal agreement — in pursuit of a common goal. In the current financial climate, financial sustainability may be what prompts schools to explore a merger, but any merger conversation should start by defining all of the reasons why it could be a strategic move for each partner in the merger.

These nine considerations will help school leaders determine whether a merger might make sense for their school:

While a merger can support better financial efficiency in the long-term, financial efficiency is neither immediate nor guaranteed. If school leaders are pursuing a merger first and foremost because they believe it promises immediate financial benefits, they should stop and reconsider. A successful merger between two or more charter schools requires a short-term infusion of funding to support the merger process. To conduct due diligence, support internal decision making, plan implementation, and ensure a smooth transition period, school leaders will need financial resources for necessary staff time and legal expertise. Any long-term financial efficiencies will only occur after an initial up-front investment that can sometimes total hundreds of thousands of dollars.  

While a merger can increase financial strength by achieving a larger or more stable revenue base (via combined student enrollment) and by enabling some economies of scale, in practice the additional revenue is often used to support a high-quality school model, via investments to support rigorous and consistent instruction for the merged institution. As a result, a merger should not be thought of as a strategy for “saving money” per se, but instead as a way to combine resources to provide a high-quality education to more students, with the stronger financial footing that comes with that.   

Continue reading

To Keep Cuts Away from Kids, Districts Must Use These Two Financial Levers

On top of immense public health and learning challenges, school districts are grappling with  critical questions about their financial future. What are the magnitude of state and local revenue shortfalls? What is the cost to fund new public health measures, social-emotional and mental health supports, and necessary academic interventions? Will there be additional federal stimulus funds to support education?

Even amid uncertainty, districts need to carry out proactive planning processes that ensure their spending remains aligned to their long-term (three to five year) strategic priorities, especially the initiatives and services that support students with the highest needs.

From our work supporting schools through earlier crises, we observed that that “urgent” budget cuts sometimes resulted in focusing too much on finding smaller short-term savings within district budgets. For example, if a district has a long-term goal around improving early elementary literacy outcomes, making cuts to literacy coach staffing may save needed dollars in the immediate term, but will put long-term outcomes at risk. By considering budget cuts in the context of strategic priorities, leaders can minimize the adverse impacts of funding shortfalls on students while maintaining momentum towards their desired future state.

Yesterday, my colleague Jenn answered common questions about whether and how changes in state revenue will impact school funding. If those changes in state revenue do have negative impacts, districts will likely need to make cuts to their operating budgets. Today we propose that districts need to both consider reductions to ongoing spending and adjustments to strategic investments. Leaders can combine the set of options outlined below to mitigate financial loss in a way that minimizes adverse impact on students, especially those with the greatest needs.

1. Reductions to Ongoing Spending

Districts will need to consider spending reductions that minimize the negative impact of COVID-19 on their strategic direction. Continue reading