October 8, 2020

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


October 7, 2020

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


October 1, 2020

A Very Different Back-to-School Season — and What We Can Learn from It

This post was co-authored with Jenee Henry Wood of Transcend, a national nonprofit working with communities to build and spread extraordinary, equitable learning environments.

As anyone in education knows, the first few weeks of school are absolutely critical. The relationships, routines, and community established in those early days serve as a foundation for the rest of the year. We also know that this year, most of America’s school communities had a dramatically different type of start. 

Over the summer, in response to the unprecedented challenges leaders and schools were facing due to the coronavirus pandemic, the teams of Transcend and Bellwether began brainstorming opportunities to combine our respective organizations’ expertise and resources (see, for example, Bellwether’s COVID resource page and Transcend’s COVID resource Library). 

In this blog post, our two organizations share insights from our experiences working closely with schools on how three common back-to-school priorities (relationship-building, routine creation, and teacher supports) have looked for their school-based partners during the COVID-19 crisis, and consider how these real-time innovations might help us rethink the way we do things in school moving forward.

Here are more details on these three priorities, with concrete examples and lessons for the future:

Relationship building with students and families

Students need to feel known and seen before they can learn effectively. Because of this, relationship building has always been a priority for the first several weeks of school.

How it looks during COVID-19

  • One-on-one meet ups with students outside of the building or via Zoom
  • Facilitated e-intros between last year’s teacher and this year’s
  • “Looping” with the same students from one year to the next (i.e. teachers stick with the same students they had last year)
  • Every student receives regular, one-on-one touchpoints from an assigned staff member
  • Targeted outreach to students who miss class to troubleshoot barriers early on
  • Virtual, daily student advisories (adult-facilitated small groups for students)

Exemplar from the field

Statesman College Prep Academy for Boys in Washington, D.C, is ensuring no student falls through the cracks by using daily 1:1 check-ins with students and families to build relationships, support well-being, and foster engagement in virtual learning. 

Considerations for the future 

Is relationship-building in schools too confined by traditional structures like the academic calendar year, grade bands, and staff organizational charts? Moving forward, how might we move past these constraints to make sure every student feels supported by a trusted adult at school?

Routine setting with students and families

The first six weeks of school are essential for establishing schedules, routines, and procedures that help classrooms run efficiently and effectively throughout the year. 

How it looks during COVID-19

  • Increased student agency to determine routines around when, where, and how to learn
  • User-friendly, visual schedules to orient students and families to expectations
  • Pre-recorded videos of how to use online platforms, submit work, etc.
  • Regular office hours to troubleshoot/answer questions
  • Daily morning and end-of-day emails to students and families sharing all relevant links and assignments from the day’s lessons 
  • Differentiated expectations (i.e. multiple schedules, flexible timelines for work completion) based on family and student needs 

Exemplar from the field

Van Ness Elementary, a DC Public School and an exemplar in integrating social-emotional learning, has seen great success in translating many of its practices into a virtual setting. Van Ness’ Strong Start Rituals and their First Weeks of School Virtual Learning tools can readily be adopted by teachers.

Considerations for the future

To what extent are our traditional routines and expectations designed for compliance rather than the creation of a strong learning community? Moving forward, how might we reimagine routines and expectation-settings to be more student-centered, inclusive of families, and differentiated by need?  

Holistic staff supports

Teachers and staff (like employees everywhere) must feel supported as people and professionals in order to perform at the highest level and meet the diverse needs of young people. In the current context, even more attention must be paid to supporting adults who are dealing with added stress and trauma and are working under entirely new job expectations and conditions. 

How it looks during COVID-19 

  • Connections to peer counseling and advising for staff, as needed
  • Small-group adult mindfulness activities 
  • Professional development that is responsive to teachers’ real-time needs, and which often utilizes teachers with in-house expertise as leaders 
  • A bank of rotating “off time” to provide days off for rest and recovery 
  • Differentiated staff schedules and expectations to accommodate demands of personal life during a pandemic
  • Innovative staffing models that allow for increased efficiency and specialization

Exemplar from the field

Pop Consulting has partnered with Transcend to put out a Trauma & Recovery Series designed to support teachers holistically. 

Considerations for the future

Where are there opportunities to rethink teacher roles to increase flexibility, autonomy, and innovation? Moving forward, how might we structure supports that create space for sustainability and self care and allow teachers to be the best professionals they can be?

– – –

The innovations we have observed during this unusual back-to-school season are both inspiring and a call to action. As school leaders and teachers continue to navigate this ongoing crisis, it is imperative that the broader field find ways to create the time, space, and resources for these practitioners to capture lessons learned and consider what those lessons might mean for the future of school. 

During this pandemic, the Bellwether and Transcend teams have partnered to bring the best expertise of our two organizations to support leaders thinking about school differently. If you are interested in supporting further collaboration between our organizations, please email Tresha Ward (tresha.ward@bellwethereducation.org) and Jeff Wetzler (jeff@transcendeducation.org)


September 30, 2020

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