Tag Archives: education finance

Unpacking Education Finance Equity for State-Level Advocates: A Q&A with TennesseeCAN’s Erika Berry

Bellwether Education Partners’ series Splitting the Bill: Understanding Education Finance Equity gives advocates a crash course in the fundamentals of education finance and in key questions to ask in their states and communities. This series of short briefs is part of Bellwether’s ongoing examination of how finance and inequity in education shortchange millions of students and families. For a look at how equity-minded policymakers and advocates can begin to understand school finance policy, click here.

Erika Berry is senior policy director for TennesseeCAN, an independent, state-based affiliate of 50CAN’s* national network. The organization’s mission is to empower local stakeholders — from community members to policymakers — to advocate for improved K-12 education policies that put Tennessee children first. Berry has spent her career focused on improving educational outcomes for students and breaking down inequitable barriers that prevent students from succeeding, beginning her career in education as a middle school math teacher.

As a participant in Bellwether’s ongoing school finance equity trainings, Berry is currently examining Tennessee’s state school funding formula using data tools like R and Shiny, in collaboration with other advocates. I caught up with her over Zoom to discuss her work and learn more about the education finance equity landscape in Tennessee. To learn more about key education finance concepts within this Q&A, click here.

Bonnie O’Keefe:
How does TennesseeCAN’s mission overlap with education finance equity?

Erika Berry:
Every day, my work is centered on ensuring that students across the state have access to high-quality schools, teachers, and resources. I focus a lot on how Tennessee’s schools can equitably prioritize the unique talents and needs of its teachers and students. 

Education finance in Tennessee treats students as ratios. Our system assumes that all schools are the same with the same needs. School and district leaders make decisions based on prescribed inputs for staffing and resources, instead of applying a strategic mindset grounded in students’ needs. It’s not their fault; the state’s resource-based student funding formula encourages this kind of thinking. Tennessee is one of only 17 states with this kind of funding formula. 

This means that in Tennessee, our Basic Education Program (BEP) funding formula gives money to schools based on assumptions about schools’ costs and ratios of resources. This mostly revolves around staffing and student-teacher ratios. For example, in the BEP, for every 8.5 students with special needs, schools are allocated funding for a special education teacher, which means around an additional $48,000. But what if fewer than 8.5 students with special needs are enrolled in a given school — how will their needs be adequately met in this funding formula framework? And why are we counting “half” a student? 

To be clear, the resource-based formula doesn’t require that schools spend that exact dollar amount on those precise staffing ratios — it’s all based on averages. But it frames the way the whole state thinks about education funding. It’s an inherently inequitable system that is offensive to educators and students alike. Tennessee’s BEP system creates an incentive to hire less experienced teachers who make below-average salaries, and discourages schools from using their resources more creatively and strategically to best meet the needs of students. 

BOK:
Is there an alternative to this resource-based system?

EB:
Yes! At TennesseeCAN, we advocate for a weighted or student-based funding formula

BOK:
Tennessee’s governor recently announced a listening tour focused on potential changes to the state’s education finance system. What specific changes does TennesseeCAN most want to see, and why? 

EB:
Tennessee has done a great job in the past decade of implementing proven ed reforms. We have some of the best laws on the books to hold teacher preparation programs accountable. In recent teacher evaluations, something like 81% of educators in the state believed that the laws improved their teaching. I think our policymakers have held true to principles of accountability for high standards and it’s a good thing for students. But our resource-based funding formula just doesn’t match up.

A weighted, or student-based funding formula would force Tennessee school districts to think first about the needs of students every time they sit down at a table to form a budget. It would also allow district leaders to be more strategic about how to spend and create greater transparency around funding allocations clearly based on enrollment and student learning needs.

BOK:
How do coalitions or partnerships play into your advocacy strategy?

EB:
They’re a fundamental part of TennesseeCAN’s approach. In 2017, we started taking funding reform seriously as an organization and adopted a vision we wanted to see happen. We pulled in Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE),* Tennesseans for Student Success, the Tennessee Charter School Center*, and The Education Trust — all of whom are members of the Team Kid coalition.

Together, we’re pushing for a statewide weighted, student-based funding formula not just as a short-term fix, but as one that will support schools in the longer term. Every year and with each new state legislative session, our coalition partners work to defend progress made on accountability and on policies that center students. Although Tennessee is in a strong fiscal position at the moment, we know our advocacy work is far from done. Once you dive into the BEP funding system, you realize it’s wholly unpredictable and inequitable. School leaders, teachers, students, and families deserve more.

BOK:
What have you learned analyzing and visualizing your state’s finance system as part of Bellwether’s School Finance Equity trainings? What have you learned from other participants in the cohort?

EB:
Bellwether’s trainings enabled me to better understand and visualize our state and local revenue and stress-test prior assumptions — many of which were wrong. 

For example, we used to think that Tennessee’s state revenues were being distributed inequitably in the BEP. When we dove into the data, we were surprised to see that state funding was fairly equitable, but it wasn’t enough to offset inequities in local tax revenue, based on local property wealth. It was the local piece where the bigger, systemic inequities existed. We essentially have a regressive local funding system that allows wealthy districts to generate as much funds as they can, and still get state funding on top, widening the financial gap with districts that have less property wealth. My work in Bellwether’s trainings led me to realize that the added state revenue for lower-wealth districts isn’t enough to cover the local revenue shortfalls. This insight affected my thinking about what a more equitable state formula and school finance system should look like.  

The cohort model has been fascinating. I have a better analytical toolkit now, thanks to the cohort members and the training on data visualization. I’ve learned a lot from peers in other states and it’s interesting to see areas of similarity in state funding formula structures and, importantly, areas of difference. Every state has something funky in its funding formula that can usually be traced back to a quick-fix policy solution that’s good for adults, but not for kids and schools.

BOK:
What are some of the common misconceptions about Tennessee’s school finance that you encounter in your work — from policymakers, or from community members? How do you help break those down?

EB:
A lot of people think the BEP is student-based, so we spend time clarifying that. Enrollment is a factor, but it’s mediated by these resource-based ratios and funding assumptions. If you ask folks to think about how the funding formula influences decision-making, it often serves as an epiphany moment. Our resource-based system envisions spending on prescribed resources (e.g., number of staff, textbooks to order) but a weighted, student-based approach leads districts to first know their students’ needs and then be strategic about how to deploy funds in a way that prioritizes students over a laundry list of resources.

At the end of the day, local districts are in a better position to know their students than the state. And the resource-based mindset leads to a variety of ongoing issues around budgets.

BOK:
What do you hope to accomplish in 2022 as it relates to education finance?

EB:
We hope that 2022 will bring a new, weighted, student-based funding formula to Tennessee. We want to have a discussion about how a new approach could shift thinking and behaviors at the state, local, and school district levels to meet students’ needs and reduce inequities. 

I worry when I talk about education funding inequity, that people might misunderstand and think that this is a “silver bullet” solution. It’s not. But, a more equitable school funding formula can help uncover those silver bullet solutions and better enable districts to really move the needle for students. I think greater funding equity has the potential to pave the way for other kinds of reforms that target and center students’ needs, first and foremost.

BOK:
One last question: How did you get started in education and what fuels your work now?

EB:
I grew up in Mississippi and always heard that our schools weren’t successful because they were underfunded — and I believed it. After college, I taught middle school in a well-funded Mississippi school district and was surprised to find that my students weren’t achieving despite all the resources we had. More money wasn’t the solution; my students were kept behind in a system that could have served them well. 

That stark realization fueled my graduate work and advocacy work — to understand what was going wrong and think about what students need versus how to make it easy for adults to run a school system. 

*(Editor’s note: Tennessee SCORE is a Bellwether client; 50CAN and the Tennessee Charter School Center are former clients.)

Unpacking Education Finance Equity for State-Level Advocates: A Q&A with EdAllies’ Krista Kaput

Bellwether Education Partners’ series Splitting the Bill: Understanding Education Finance Equity gives advocates a crash course in the fundamentals of education finance and in key questions to ask in their states and communities. This series of short briefs is part of Bellwether’s ongoing examination of how finance and inequity in education shortchange millions of students and families. For a look at how equity-minded policymakers and advocates can take a deep dive into the wonky details of school finance policy, click here.

Krista Kaput is research director at EdAllies in Minnesota, where she uses research and data to amplify asset- and equity-based stories from the state’s education landscape. She has held a variety of roles at the intersection of education policy and practice, and began her career in the classroom as a Teach For America corps member in Chicago.

As a participant in Bellwether’s ongoing school finance equity trainings, Kaput is currently analyzing and visualizing Minnesota’s state school funding formula using data tools like R and Shiny. I connected with her over Zoom recently to discuss her work on behalf of Minnesota students and the role school finance plays in educational equity. To learn more about key education finance concepts within this Q&A, click here.

Bonnie O’Keefe:
Tell me about your role and the mission behind EdAllies.

Krista Kaput:
I’m the research director at EdAllies, a Minnesota-based advocacy and policy nonprofit that partners with schools, families, and communities to ensure that every young Minnesotan — particularly those from underserved communities — has access to a rigorous and engaging education. I manage research projects and am the lead writer for EdAllies’ policy work.

Our work follows a three-pronged approach:

  • Advance equity: We advocate for policies that put underserved students first. In particular, we focus on teacher preparation and licensure, school discipline, college and career readiness, school finance, data transparency, and parent choice. 
  • Remove barriers: We work with families, teachers, and school leaders to find the most promising strategies for success and to remove policy barriers. 
  • Elevating historically excluded voices: We strive to change the conversation by elevating the voices of those who have been excluded from decision-making through storytelling efforts such as our blogs, op-eds, projects, surveys, and also through outreach at the Minnesota State Capitol.

All of this work relies upon collaborative partnerships among EdAllies and schools, coalitions, associations, and parent groups. 

BOK:
How does education finance equity relate to your advocacy agenda in Minnesota?

KK:
Equity is at the core of our work and education finance — where and how money is allocated and spent in Minnesota — is central to achieving a level playing field. We see the complexity and inequities of our education finance system as a barrier to the general public being able to understand and advocate for change that puts underserved students at the center. Minnesota has a reputation of being a very progressive and generous state when it comes to education funding. $10.5 billion in state dollars goes to public education, about 42% of the state’s general fund. We also have several dedicated funding streams for low-income students, English language learners, and other student groups that need extra educational resources. But that isn’t the whole story. Minnesota consistently puts equality over equity in school finance, and shortchanges the groups of students who need resources the most.  

Our overly complicated education finance system deters people from digging in and learning about systemwide nuances that are actually quite inequitable. We see it as our job to deeply understand the finance system and translate that knowledge to the general public. 

BOK:
Tell me more. What are education finance equity challenges facing Minnesota, and how do they affect students and schools?

KK:
Every state education finance system should start with an adequate base amount of funding per student and allocate additional resources to underserved student populations in an equitable, transparent, and efficient way. Minnesota doesn’t do this to the best of its ability. 

While we have a generous base amount of state funding per pupil, we use several disconnected, complicated formulas to allocate additional funds for low-income students, ELLs, students in rural areas, and students with disabilities. These separate formulas have many technical loopholes and quirks that undermine equity, which make it more difficult to put money in the hands of districts and schools serving students with the greatest needs.  

For example, I’ve recently been analyzing Minnesota’s “compensatory revenue” formula, which is meant to provide additional funds to schools and districts serving low-income students. This formula has an 80% cap, which means that schools don’t see a per-pupil increase in funding if they have a low-income student concentration above 80%. If compensatory revenue is meant to acknowledge that schools serving more low-income students need extra resources and supports, why would a school serving 99% low-income students get the same amount as a school serving 80% low-income students? Furthermore, while the money is generated at the school level, statutory language allows the district to retain up to 50% of the funds.

In another example, we’re one of six states that don’t have an expected local share in our state formula, which fuels district-level inequities. The state distributes money without anticipating how much local districts can raise on their own, giving already wealthy districts a larger share of state funds than they need. 

We would prefer a weighted, student-based funding formula, which could clarify how state and local funds get distributed to districts, and embed funding for students with additional needs within one consistent, transparent, and equitable formula.

BOK:
What work do you have underway this year around finance equity in Minnesota? How have you dug into the data and policies, and what are you planning to do next?

KK:
Although school finance is a newer issue area for EdAllies, we’ve been doing a lot with it this year, and have been collaborating with several national organizations in the process. 

Our team has been partnering with finance experts at The Education Trust to identify areas of strength and improvement in Minnesota’s school finance system and learn from other states’ best practices. Through this partnership, I’ve learned just how inequitable and “faux-gressive” Minnesota’s education finance system is, particularly for how we fund ELLs and students with disabilities. And through Bellwether’s school finance equity trainings, I’ve built up my data analysis and visualization skills so that I can model and demonstrate the impact of the policies we’re proposing to change using real education finance data from Minnesota.

During the 2021 legislative session, EdAllies was part of a coalition that advanced a bill that would have lifted the cap on compensatory revenue for low-income students and kept more of those funds at the school level. The bill made it into the final education omnibus bill in the Minnesota State House, but unfortunately didn’t make it through the Conference Committee. We plan to advocate for it again in the upcoming 2022 legislative session. 

My team is already strategizing how we can visualize the proposed changes in our advocacy agenda with legislators, educators, advocacy organizations, and other stakeholders. I’m creating a dashboard that will visualize the impact of potential policy changes for ELLs, students with disabilities, and students living in rural areas, as well as what a weighted student funding formula could look like in Minnesota. We’re also examining within-district finance inequity in how districts distribute funds to schools. With support through a NERD$ mini-grant from Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab I’ll also examine within-district per-pupil spending against a variety of metrics (e.g., attendance, academic proficiency, high school graduation rates, teacher diversity, and more). 

BOK:
What do you wish more state advocates for educational equity understood about school finance and state funding systems?

KK:
At least in Minnesota, I wish more people understood how much we could improve our way of funding schools. I run into a lot of Minnesotans who think that the way we do things currently is the best way, and that the only education finance change we need is more general funding. It’s a status-quo mindset that calcifies unnecessary barriers to people even trying to understand our finance system. And it perpetuates inequities and blocks progressive policies from passing. I wish more people understood that other states have transparent and clear weighted student funding formulas, and have figured out how to distribute local and state revenues more equitably. That’s what we’re working toward at EdAllies. 

If anyone reading this hasn’t already looked into how their state’s education funding system is structured, I highly encourage them to do so. I also want to encourage all readers to look at their state’s school finance data at the Edunomics Lab’s NERD$ database and, if and/or when it’s offered again, I encourage everyone to apply to take Bellwether’s school finance equity trainings.

BOK:
In closing, I’m curious about what drew you to a career in education policy and advocacy. Can you explain what led you to this work?

KK:
I grew up in a primarily single-parent household and attended Minnesota public schools for years. I wasn’t really challenged and started to make questionable choices. My mother worked two jobs and made many sacrifices to give me an opportunity to attend a private school that changed the entire trajectory of my life. No parent should ever have to do what my mom did to give their child a high-quality education. Every school should be high quality.

As an undergrad at the University of Chicago, I tutored fourth graders who could barely read. I was at a top-tier postsecondary education institution with limitless resources, neighboring woefully under-resourced schools. I decided to do Teach For America in Chicago and learned about toxic stress and the impact of neighborhood violence — I lost four students to violence while teaching there. My school had a purely discipline-based approach to teaching, that didn’t reward building trust and relationships with young people. 

These experiences drive my work and make me want to change the systems that schools operate in. 

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.

What’s the Deal with Pre-K Funding in Maryland?

Earlier this month, U.S. Department of Education awarded Maryland a $15 million Preschool Development Grant. This award recognizes Maryland’s history of leadership in providing quality preschool for low-income students — but it could also increase the complexity and fragmentation of the state’s preschool funding landscape.

And Maryland’s pre-k funding structure is complex enough as it is. Unlike any other state, for the past twelve years Maryland has required districts to offer pre-k through the Bridge to Excellence Act (BTE), but it doesn’t have a dedicated pre-k funding stream to fund that requirement. Through BTE, the state completely revised its school finance structure and increased state aid to public schools by $1.3 billion over six years. In return, districts had to provide fullday kindergarten and at least half-day pre-k for students from families with income levels at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty guideline.

Because of the structure of the BTE formula, districts that had the most low-income kids to serve got the biggest funding increases. The new formula distributed 74 percent of the additional state aid inverse to local wealth, so less affluent districts received more aid than more affluent districts. Each school district received a base amount and additional funds based on the number of students who receive special education services, who have limited English proficiency, and who qualify for free- and reduced-price meals.

From the state perspective, the additional state aid should cover the cost of the pre-k requirement. From a district perspective, pre-k is an unfunded mandate: there’s no distinct, dedicated funding stream for pre-k, as exists in many other states. Maryland districts pay for pre-k out of their general state aid pot.

Fast forward to earlier this year. Maryland passed the Preschool Expansion Act, which created a completely different pre-k initiative. Preschool Expansion is a $4.3 million competitive grant program for children up to 300 percent of the federal poverty guideline. Now the federal Preschool Development Grant will fund another pre-k initiative for students up to 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline. That’s three different pre-k initiatives for three different, but overlapping, student populations.

To be sure, additional pre-k money is good news for Maryland students. And yet, Maryland students (and parents, and schools) deserve some reassurance that there’s a coherent strategy in place. Neither the Preschool Expansion Act nor the Preschool Development Grant directly supports the existing pre-k structure in Maryland. Instead, the state piled on two new initiatives right on top of BTE, which was already the third effort since 1980. The result is a fragmented array of pre-k funding options, none of which perfectly align in services, providers, or priorities.

Maryland isn’t alone in this complex pre-k funding system. Louisiana and New Jersey, also Preschool Development Grant winners, have at least three different, concurrently operating pre-k funding streams that tend to merge and separate over time. State policymakers often have political or pragmatic reasons to create multiple pre-k funding streams – but the result falls short of a cohesive strategy and instead leaves a confused pre-k landscape that is harder to navigate, harder to manage, and harder to sell.

The Problem With Building Programs on Sin Taxes

There’s good news and bad news in Arizona right now. The good news: The smoking rates in Arizona are going down. The bad news: Lower smoking rates mean less pre-k funding. $26 million less, in fact.

That’s because Arizona funds pre-k with a tobacco tax. In 2006, Arizona voters passed Proposition 203, which added a 4-cent tax per cigarette to fund the state’s pre-k program and created a statewide office, First Things First, to oversee the program.

Using tobacco taxes – and other sin taxes – to fund initiatives is a politically popular approach. Set aside for a minute that sin taxes are inherently regressive (e.g., the people footing tobacco taxes generally have lower income and education levels). In Arizona’s case, a tobacco tax feels like a win-win: the state introduces an economic incentive to reduce cigarette consumption and funds early education without going through the vagaries of appropriation.

But Arizona’s experience also shows it’s not a long-term solution to funding early childhood education. The smoking rate in Arizona has decreased over the past several years and, with it, funding for pre-k. In FY09, the state’s tobacco tax pulled in $141 million; the estimate for FY14 is $115 million. First Things First stockpiled money in the first few years because it started collecting taxes before it was required to disburse funding, so right now there’s a cushion. But as less tobacco tax money is coming in, dipping deeper into the fund will be necessary.

Which brings us to the problem with building a program on sin taxes: sometimes incentives work. Tobacco taxes are not a sustainable substitute for state fiscal commitment in early education.

To account for the loss in state funding, First Things First is changing their allocation structure. Right now, pre-k funding flows from First Things First to regional councils to pre-k providers. The regional councils, entirely run by volunteer community members, decide which providers get funding. If selected, a provider typically receives a number of state-funded pre-k slots that correlates with the size and quality of their program.

Starting next July, however, those volunteer-led regional councils will determine both which providers get slots and how many slots they should receive. First Things First will fulfill those requests if they can, funding the highest quality providers first, but there’s no guarantee that providers will receive any funding at all. The short-term consequence is uncertainty; the long-term consequence is fewer students being served.

Arizona isn’t the only state with issues funding pre-k through a sin tax. California is facing decreasing tobacco tax dollars, North Carolina and Georgia have had trouble with inconsistent or insufficient lottery revenue, and Arkansas’ beer tax was all over the place for the few years it existed. (President Obama’s Preschool for All initiative is supposed to be funded through a tobacco tax, but smoking trends nationally are also going down.)

Funding state pre-k through a tobacco tax is politically palatable and a fine place to start looking for funding. But if we’re serious about our commitment to early education, we can’t take the shortsighted, easy win — we need to prepare for the eventuality that the money won’t last forever.