Category Archives: School Funding

Student-Based Budgeting in Service of Equity: A Q&A With Jess Gartner of Allovue

This interview was conducted just before the coronavirus pandemic upended schooling across the country. We decided not to publish this while educators, students, and families navigated the first phase of this crisis, but now, as district and school leaders develop plans for the 2020-21 school year, we believe this conversation’s focus on budgets and equity can inform their decision-making.

This post is also part of a series of interviews conducted for our Eight Cities project. Read all related posts here.

School funding. Are we spending the right amount? Are we spending it fairly? Are we spending it wisely? These questions get the most attention when state legislatures debate policies that involve millions or even billions of dollars, or when those policies are challenged in court. Those conversations are critical — state funding policies are foundational to how schools are resourced — but they aren’t the whole story.

Less often discussed is how funding is allocated from districts to schools, which can have a major impact on equity. Most districts build school budgets based on inputs required to run each school, largely reflecting compensation costs for the teachers, administrators, and support staff employed in a school, plus budget for materials and supplies. This method may sound logical on its face, but it can limit strategic spending decisions and result in inequitable allocation of resources.

An alternative approach that some districts are beginning to explore is student-based budgeting, which allocates funds based on the students served in each school, weighted for factors associated with their individual education needs (such as income status, disability status, or status as a dual- or English-language learner).

Student-based budgeting can be a driver of equity and support district innovations like those highlighted in our Eight Cities project. When equipped with a budget that reflects the needs of their students, school leaders can then leverage increased school-level autonomy over key decisions, including staffing and budgeting, and customize school programs and operations to the needs of their students.

Allovue, a Baltimore-based education financial technology (EdFinTech) company, works with school districts to build and support technology-based solutions to plan, manage, and evaluate spending. We talked with CEO Jess Gartner to get more insight into student-based budgeting, particularly with an equity lens, and the opportunities and challenges it presents to districts.

"I am a huge proponent of principal autonomy – it's actually what got me into this work. I think that students and communities are best served when you put decisions and dollars in the hands of leaders that are closest to them"

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

At the heart of your company’s mission statement is a focus on equitable budgeting. What does that mean in practice?

Equity is not a “one size fits all” thing. There’s not a single “answer” for an equitable funding formula. You have to take into account the needs and context of the local community and align that to the needs of students and the resources they need to be successful in that district. A lot of the work we do starts with a “steady-state analysis” and helping districts understand where they are today. We are then able to dig in at a deeper level and ask: “What are some things jumping out at you as potentially problematic or areas that you want to improve?” We often see either an inverse correlation between need and dollars that are allocated or dollars that are spent, or we see a completely equal allocation of resources. In an ideal scenario, the resources are correlated positively with the needs of students.

Our recommended approach is to use the first six to twelve months with a targeted group of internal stakeholders to see where they are today. We can’t inform your strategy one way or another until we all have some time to look at where you are today.

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Post-Espinoza, It’s Time to Embrace More Pluralism

The majority opinion in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue from Chief Justice Roberts could not be more clear: “A State need not subsidize private education. But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.” With this ruling, “Blaine Amendments” in state constitutions were essentially repealed. It’s an unequivocal victory for school choice advocates on the question of who can operate a school with public funding, decidedly in favor of a pluralistic approach.

Research shows that areas with more religious individuals are correlated with greater upward mobility. But the option for some students to attend religious schools is no panacea. As Espinoza forces state policy to become more agnostic on the question of who operates schools, policymakers will have to grapple with how to balance the autonomy of multiple school providers – public and non-public alike – with policies that protect the rights of families and ensure that public funding for education produces adequately educated citizens.

Schools from McKinley and Cibola Counties in NM gathered at the Cathedral for a Mass celebrated by Bishop James Wall.

Catholic school mass via Flickr user dioceseofgallup

The first question policymakers need to address is that of access: which families have access to which schools through public funding? All students – regardless of where they live – ought to have equal admissions access to publicly funded schools, whether they are operated by a public school district or a religious organization. This principle should be applied to voucher-type programs and public schools alike. Schools across all sectors have a nasty history of excluding poor and Black students, whether through attendance boundaries created to protect affluent white “public” schools or “segregation academies” in the private sector.. Public and private schools alike should embrace the principle that any student is welcome to apply for a fair shot at enrollment, regardless of where they lay down their head at night.

Second, just as families deserve fair access to publicly-funded schools, they should also not be forced to enroll their children at schools they view as harmful. Accordingly, policymakers must ensure that religious schools are not the only option available to families. No family should be effectively required to enroll their child at a school that violates their family’s religious beliefs. This is of greatest concern in rural areas, where the geographic density of students may not support multiple school operators. States could consider population density minimums or market share caps for private school operators to receive public subsidy in a given area.  Continue reading

COVID-19 Sheds Light on Existing Weaknesses in Early Childhood Systems

COVID-19 highlights the foundational weaknesses in our nation’s approach to early care and education. Unlike K-12 public schools, which are funded primarily by state and local government and operated by government entities or under their oversight, early childhood care and education in the United States is funded primarily through parent tuition payments and delivered through a patchwork of providers. These include center-based child care operated by for- and nonprofit entities ranging from small businesses to national chains, home-based childcare, Head Start, and school-based pre-K programs, all of which operate under different regulations and resources depending on the type of program they are, the age of children they serve, and where their funding comes from. 

It’s a complicated system given these underlying financing, structural, and policy factors, which COVID-19 has only underscored. The existing fragmentation has complicated efforts to protect children’s health and safety during the virus, ensure care for children of essential workers, or even collect accurate data to understand what is going on. And the system’s underfunding and reliance on parent payments has made early childhood providers and workers incredibly vulnerable in the current situation. 

As state and local governments began to close schools and nonessential businesses in mid-March, early childhood providers and state system leaders faced several urgent needs. These included making decisions about whether to close child care programs to protect child and staff safety, ensuring continuing access to child care for essential frontline workers, and providing early intervention and development support to children at home. As the chart below shows, these immediate needs cut across interrelated dimensions of health, economics, and child development — as does the early childhood field itself.

chart: "COVID-19 is creating new early childhood sector needs, and exacerbating others"

As early childhood leaders and policymakers begin to look around the corner — to think about economic recovery as the public health crisis begins to subside — new questions and challenges are emerging. Many early childhood providers have lost substantial revenues as a result of COVID-related closures and reduced demand for childcare, and are at risk of going out of business. Getting America back to work will require stabilizing the child care sector to enable workers across the economy to return to their jobs, or find new ones. Continue reading

Evaluators Bring Superpowers to Your Federal Grant Application

Yesterday, my colleague Lina Bankert wrote about three new federal grant competitions that have just been posted. Those who are new to federal grant competitions may find the evaluation requirements and research-design options (explained below) overwhelming. Federal grant applications typically require:

  • An evidence-based rationale for the proposed project’s approach, such as a logic model
  • Citations of prior research that support key components of a project’s design and meet specific thresholds for rigor specified by the What Works Clearinghouse
  • Expected outcomes and how applicants will measure those with valid and reliable instruments
  • Explanation of how the proposed project will be studied to understand its impact

Proposals may be scored by two kinds of individuals: reviewers with programmatic expertise and reviewers with evaluation expertise. Sections of the grant are allocated a certain number of points, all of which total to a final score that drives which proposals receive awards. The evaluation section of these proposals can represent up to 25% of the total points awarded to applicants, so having a strong one can make or break an application. 

red letters that say "KAPOW" coming out of a blue and yellow comic-style explosion

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

Writing these sections requires a sophisticated understanding of research methodology and analytical techniques in order to tie the application together with a consistent and compelling evidence base. Our evaluation team at Bellwether has partnered with a number of organizations to help them design programmatic logic models, shore up their evidence base, and write evaluation plans that have contributed to winning applications to the tune of about $60 million. This includes three recent partnerships with Chicago International Charter School, Citizens of the World Charter Schools, and Grimmway Schools — all winners in the latest round of Charter School Program (CSP) funding for replication and expansion of successful charter networks.

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Applications Open for 3 Federal Grants: Tips From Bellwether

In the past few days, three major education-related federal grants have opened their application processes.

The Supporting Effective Educator Development (SEED) Grant Program, the Teacher and School Leader (TSL) Incentive Grants, and the Education Innovation and Research (EIR) Fund collectively offer approximately $266 million in funding to eligible education entities. (All three currently list a June 2020 application deadline.)

Teachers at Skyline High School meet with community partners to plan work-based learning opportunities for students.

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

These programs closely align with Bellwether’s mission of supporting underserved students: 

  • SEED: “Increase the number of highly effective educators by supporting […] practices that prepare, develop, or enhance the skills of educators”
  • TSL: “Develop, implement, improve, or expand comprehensive Performance-Based Compensation Systems or Human Capital Management Systems for teachers, principals, and other school leaders […] especially [those] who […] close the achievement gap between high- and low-performing students”
  • EIR: “Create, develop, implement, replicate, or take to scale entrepreneurial, evidence-based, field-initiated innovations to improve student achievement and attainment for high-need students; and rigorously evaluate such innovations”

While these grants require complex applications and can be highly competitive, Bellwether is here to help. Since 2010, we have successfully partnered with many organizations in their successful bids for federal grants. These include the following organizations, some of which have won several times with our support: Harmony Public Schools, IDEA Public Schools, Louisiana Department of Education, National Math and Science Initiative, New Schools for New Orleans, RePublic Schools, Rhode Island Department of Education, and Tennessee Department of Education.

Back in 2016, I shared a series of tips on writing a successful federal education grant application, so we’re re-upping that conversation today.

But first, a few 2020 additions to our 2016 thoughts:

First, it is worth naming that we are navigating through highly uncertain times precipitated by the COVID-19 crisis. Leaders across the sector are urgently attending to foundational needs and may see a grant application as yet another item on top of an already packed to-do list. We empathize — and also believe that now is an opportune moment for organizations to think ahead and consider how to evolve to address changing needs, either by accelerating existing work or by pursuing a bold new innovation.

Second, don’t feel like you have to go it alone. Many strong grant proposals are developed in partnership. We encourage organizations to have conversations early on with potential partners who can bring particular expertise or serve as a “test lab” for an initiative. (My colleague Allison Crean Davis will write a companion post tomorrow about the evaluation capabilities needed for a winning grant — and how we can support on that front.)

Finally, even if your application does not rise to the top, consider yourself a winner. Grant development can help you get clarity on where you’re headed and highlight gaps that you need to close before taking on a big new initiative. Going through the process of identifying strengths and opportunities can be just as valuable as actually acing the competition. Continue reading