Tag Archives: equity

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.

Education Innovator Q&A: Jordan Meranus on Elevating English Learners to Thrive

With the 2021-22 school year well underway across the country, we have continued to reach out to education leaders and innovators on where we’ve been, where we’re going, and what their organizations are doing to weather the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and serve students. Visit these posts for a few recent back-to-school reflections. 

Jordan Meranus is an entrepreneur with deep roots in launching and leading high-impact education companies and nonprofits. Early in his career, he co-founded Jumpstart, a national nonprofit providing intensive early literacy, language, and social-emotional programming to children in under-resourced communities in dozens of cities across the country. He was also a partner at NewSchools Venture Fund where he assisted entrepreneurs in developing innovative organizations in public education. Currently, Meranus is co-founder and CEO of Ellevation Education, a web-based ed tech software platform that provides solutions to improve educational outcomes for multilingual learners by increasing educator effectiveness and scaffolding student learning. Bellwether’s Andy Rotherham was an advisor to the company. 

I caught up with Meranus in a wide-ranging conversation focused on English Learners (ELs), how school systems and teachers can be better equipped to serve them, and how language matters. 

Yoshira Cardenas Licea:
I’m curious about what Ellevation Education does, the WHY behind your everyday work, and how it has evolved since its founding. Can you tell me a little bit about the organization? 

Jordan Meranus:
Ellevation Education is a mission-driven software company exclusively focused on multilingual learners and the educators who serve them. My co-founder (Teddy Rice) and I had been supporting and investing in education organizations and companies focused on underserved populations and struggling students for years. We’d spent significant time asking educators across the country about their most acute challenges. And we routinely heard that they were struggling to meet the needs of ELs in increasingly linguistically diverse classrooms. We quickly learned that ELs were the fastest growing population of students in the U.S., with an achievement gap wider than race and income at the time. We also quickly learned that school leaders and teachers were in dire need of resources to better serve EL students.

A decade ago, we started Ellevation Education to address this problem at scale. Our work ensures that educators have the tools to meet the needs of ELs and multilingual learners. Initially, we focused on school administrators, but have since grown to directly serve classroom teachers and EL students. 

YCL:
What does that work look like in practice in a classroom setting?

JM:
Today, we have about 150 Ellevation team members serving over 1,100 school districts in nearly every state in the country. Our work initially focused on administrators, with early products centered on data, workflows, and the challenges that pull educators away from instructional preparation and time for intervention. We soon realized, though, that to truly address EL needs, we had to expand to serve teachers and students. So we launched Ellevation Strategies to help classroom teachers understand the strengths and needs of their EL students and engage them in rigorous content. More recently, we launched Ellevation Math to help EL students develop the vocabulary and academic language needed to access content and actively engage in classroom instruction.

For example, let’s say you’re an eighth grade math teacher planning a lesson on parabolas. If you have EL students, it’s highly likely that they may not fully grasp some of the language and vocabulary that you’ll use in your lesson (e.g., vertex, slope, symmetry). How might that impact their experience in your classroom? Ellevation Math provides short lessons to teach students that vocabulary so that they’ll be able to participate and complete the rigorous standards-based work.

YCL:
What do you identify today as the biggest challenge facing ELs?

JM:
You can’t boil it down to ONE challenge, it’s too multifaceted. 

First, I think it’s important to realize that ELs have to do double the work. It’s an oft-used phrase but ELs have to learn content and language — all while navigating the social and cultural world in their schools and communities. Put yourself in their shoes, it’s a lot to ask of K-12 students. 

Next, layer in the fact that many families of EL children may lack a deep understanding of education in the U.S., especially now navigating complicated choices around schooling amid the pandemic. 

Mix in challenges with inadequate teacher training for educators — who increasingly have to be a teacher of both language and content — and there are enormously unmet professional development needs. Recent research that we’re seeing shows that teachers are increasingly worried about whether they and their schools are effectively meeting EL needs. Something like 64% of teachers don’t feel they’re getting enough PD to accomplish this.

This mix of EL student challenges and teacher training constraints adds up to a very challenging environment for 5+ million EL students in U.S. schools. 

YCL:
As a former teacher in rural south Texas with a high EL student population, I can’t imagine teaching in this context. What does the average person not appreciate about ELs?

JM:
I love the question, and it’s something I think about a lot. Either because of how the press covers this student population or test scores, most people approach this question thinking about deficits and not about the assets EL students bring to the classroom: 

  • ELs are well on their way to being multilingual, which the majority of native-born Americans won’t be. Participating in immersive language programs is something a lot of parents clamor for.
  • ELs demonstrate perseverance and grit on a daily basis, including many whose families endured obstacles and trauma to get to this country.
  • Most people don’t fully appreciate that being an EL is a moment in time. With the right supports, schooling, interventions, and trained teachers, ELs are on a path to being proficient and achieving outcomes as strong or often stronger than their non-EL peers.

Language is important. We had a recent guest on our Highest Aspirations podcast who’s started using the language of the “emergent bilingual.” It’s asset based, and focuses on where EL students are heading. Compare that to the standard “limited English proficient” language that’s so deficit based. These kinds of changes matter and I hope more and more that we’ll start to see a powerful shift in language around ELs.

YCL:
We think a lot about school culture at Bellwether in our work with educators and clients. What do you think are key steps more schools should take to create an inclusive school culture for ELs?

JM:
It’s critical to recognize and use the asset-based mindset we were just discussing. Community and family engagement are also critical levers to learn what assets and challenges families and EL students bring, and to welcome them and better serve them in a school setting. We also have to create language-rich environments: EL students work best when engaging with teachers and peers and in project-based learning with a lot of opportunities to practice. Teacher preparation is also a huge piece of a good school culture for ELs so that those welcoming and engaging classrooms are commonplace within a school. I also think students need to be and feel seen. As a society, we need to do much more to preserve and showcase students’ home languages and cultures.

YCL:
We’ve been through a lot since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. What are you most worried about?

JM:
As EL students achieve proficiency, they’re reclassified. If this happens by the eighth grade, ELs tend to achieve on par with or above their non-EL peers. I worry about those ELs who don’t get reclassified before eighth grade or high school. Data show that students who are not reclassified by this time are much more likely to fall further behind, be less engaged, and even drop out.

Prior to the pandemic, there was increasing evidence that the number of long-term ELs, or those that do not get reclassified, was on the rise. I’m concerned that COVID-19 has exacerbated this by depriving kids of in-person school environments and critical opportunities to experience rich language learning. I think by the end of 2021, we might see concerning numbers that require a larger focus on investing resources to ensure that these long-term EL students don’t drop out and are being adequately supported and engaged in their learning.

YCL:
On the flip side of that question, what excites you about Ellevation’s work and about EL students?

JM:
We’re clearly in an incredible period of disruption, with educators, families, and children — especially EL students — feeling a great deal of sustained stress. Ellevation’s mission, products, and services are designed to alleviate some of that stress. We’re well positioned to be a terrific asset for schools, educators, and students to meet this moment. 

YCL:
In closing, what personally calls you to this work?

JM:
Growing up, I knew what it was like to feel and live in a tumultuous environment and to feel vulnerable. That’s what led me to focus in part on education. I also worked at a residential camp for kids with severe emotional disturbances (victims of abuse and neglect). The experience gave me a unique window into how profoundly these kids were struggling but also the tremendous assets these same kids possess. They needed adults and communities to be there for them. So I helped start Jumpstart and focused my work on how to ensure we do the best we can to support struggling students in underserved communities. Ellevation gives me the opportunity to marry each of these things — focusing on underserved students, building a mission-oriented organization and team, and having an opportunity to impact and serve EL students and teachers — every day.

YCL:
Having grown up in a Spanish-speaking family and teaching ELs, thank you for your work.

Revisiting Missing in the Margins: Recommendations for Resource Allocation

In October 2020, Missing in the Margins: Estimating the Scale of the COVID-19 Attendance Crisis estimated that as many as 3 million K-12 students across the country were at high risk of experiencing minimal or no educational access from spring through fall 2020 as a result of the pandemic. Fast-forward one year later, and available data on 2020-21 enrollment, attendance, and engagement suggest massive missed learning opportunities, especially among the most marginalized students.

Changes to practices, policies, and resource allocation can help support all students — especially those with limited access to learning opportunities in 2020-21. In this concluding third blog in a series, we expand upon our updated practice and policy recommendations for 2021 by focusing the necessary resources to fund these changes.

Sufficient funding is key in order for schools to implement effective practices to meet the needs of students with disrupted learning experiences. Additional funding is also a key component of implementing significant policy change. As leaders and policymakers seek to encourage and implement new practices and policies, they must also allocate sufficient, sustainable resources to support the work underway. 

Thankfully, flexible federal stimulus funds of more than $120 billion, directed at districts and states based on the low-income students they serve, could go a long way toward meeting that funding need. To put this amount of money in context, this infusion of federal funds represents almost 16% of pre-pandemic annual nationwide K-12 education expenditures.* 

Some of the few requirements for district spending of federal stimulus funds include:

  • At least 20% must be used to address learning loss, including academic, social, and emotional needs.
  • Funding should especially target subgroups of students who are more likely to be deeply affected by COVID-19 disruptions, such as students experiencing homelessness, and students in foster care. 

Although stimulus funds might make districts feel flush in the short term, there are still reasons to be concerned in the longer term. There are many competing priorities for using these funds, like expanding technological capacity for remote learning or renovating facilities. Some districts are simply relying on stimulus funds to make up for shortfalls in state and local funding. And, in 2024, stimulus funds will expire

Also, using stimulus funds for direct student supports can be complicated because many of the best practices are people- and relationship-driven, which might require investments in new staff and more staff time. Students with disrupted educational experiences benefit greatly from strong relationships with a caring adult with the means to help them navigate support services, but if districts fund new staff positions with time-limited federal funds, those positions could be at-risk when funding expires.

Providing the services students need, while still planning for a sustainable financial future, means that schools and districts should lean on collaborative models. Community-based organizations with complementary skill sets could help expand schools’ capacity for non-instructional support without expanding in-school staff. For example, a homeless-services organization could partner with a school district to make sure students and families experiencing homelessness have their basic needs met. Or a community-based college support organization can supplement the work of school-based counselors. These partnerships take work to be aligned and effective, but for students with deeper needs they can be transformational — particularly if they can evolve in response to changing student needs over time. 

As district leaders make school spending plans for learning recovery amid the COVID-19 pandemic, state and federal policymakers also have work to do. Many traditional state and federal funding streams are not as flexible as stimulus funds, and now could be the perfect time to re-examine state school funding policies with greater equity in mind. Meanwhile, advocates at the local and state level can help support students at the margins by demanding transparency about local and state spending to support learning recovery, and keeping the pressure on districts and states to put the needs of students with the greatest unmet needs front and center. Policymakers must plan now to help schools avoid a fiscal cliff as stimulus funds expire, to allocate resources where they can be most effective for students, and to keep effective local work going long after stimulus funds run out. 

To read the Revisiting Missing in the Margins blog series in its entirety, click here

*In 2017-18, total U.S. K-12 spending across local, state, and federal governments totaled over $760 billion annually.

Revisiting Missing in the Margins: Recommendations for Policy

In October 2020, Missing in the Margins: Estimating the Scale of the COVID-19 Attendance Crisis estimated that as many as 3 million K-12 students across the country were at high risk of experiencing minimal or no educational access from spring through fall 2020 as a result of the pandemic. Fast-forward one year later, and available data on 2020-21 enrollment, attendance, and engagement suggest massive missed learning opportunities, especially among the most marginalized students.

Changes to practices, policies, and resource allocation can help support all students — especially those with limited access to learning opportunities in 2020-21. This blog post is the second in a series for 2021 where we will expand upon our recommendations, linking practices with policies.

In addition to school and district practices, policies play an important role in facilitating learning acceleration, especially for marginalized and underserved students. Policymakers have already responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by either providing flexibility to schools so that they can remain student-centered in their decision-making or by removing barriers that limit the ability of schools to better serve the needs of students. However, we know that additional policies are needed to ensure that schools and districts can better identify students who need more support. These policies should also ensure that students receive effective interventions that are personalized to their unique needs. Similar to school and district practices, students and their family or support unit should be at the center of every policymaking decision. In particular, four policy areas can support learning recovery efforts: 

1. Data Transparency
Most state and district policies related to enrollment, attendance, and engagement data have not kept up with the new demands of the COVID-19 era. These policies are typically set at the federal and state levels but local school districts should do more to collect these data at the student-level. Without more accurate and disaggregated data that are shared publicly, especially related to attendance and engagement, schools are at risk of not identifying the students who need the most support. 

2. Accountability
In response to the pandemic and its impact on student learning, states put in place “hold harmless” provisions around attendance, grade retention, and high school graduation, and amended accountability systems with federal waivers. Based on the lessons learned from the past two years, the federal government and states should conduct a comprehensive review of those temporary policies, make thoughtful decisions for the current and upcoming school years, and communicate clearly about their goals for students in order to create predictability for schools and encourage a focus on learning acceleration.

3. Comprehensive and Targeted Interventions
Since the start of the pandemic, the consequences of uneven local capacity to address ongoing national crises without effective policies and guidance have been clear. State and federal policies should enable every school and district to create an effective system of comprehensive and targeted learning interventions to meet the needs of each student. Importantly, this system should incentivize collaboration and partnership with other child-serving systems, organizations, agencies, and community partners.

4. Additional Time for Learning
One of the most important ways to make up for missed learning opportunities is through additional learning time. This could include extended school days and years, summer and out-of-school tutoring and supplementary learning, or extending time in school for older students before a transition to postsecondary learning. Any of these initiatives will require policy changes. For example, staffing for extended school days or years are likely to implicate collective bargaining agreements with teachers unions, and transitional years or “year 13” high school opportunities will affect the reporting of graduation rates used for accountability purposes.

These policy recommendations, in combination with effective school and district practices, can help students accelerate their learning. However, these policy recommendations also rely on adequate resource allocations, up next in this series. You can catch up here

Revisiting Missing in the Margins: Recommendations for Practice

In October 2020, Missing in the Margins: Estimating the Scale of the COVID-19 Attendance Crisis estimated that as many as 3 million K-12 students across the country were at high risk of experiencing minimal or no educational access from spring through fall 2020 as a result of the pandemic. Fast-forward one year later, and available data on 2020-21 enrollment, attendance, and engagement suggest massive missed learning opportunities, especially among the most marginalized students.

Changes to practices, policies, and resource allocation can help support all students — especially those with limited access to learning opportunities in 2020-21. This blog post is the first in a series for 2021 where we will expand upon our recommendations, beginning with practices.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, young people across the country have experienced profound disruptions to their educational trajectories. This is particularly true for young people furthest from opportunity, including undocumented students and those in foster care or who are experiencing homelesness. These young people need intensive support from their schools in order to accelerate their learning and address their socio-emotional needs. How can schools, community partners, and child-serving systems work together to implement practices at a local school and community level that can accelerate learning for students with differing needs and experiences over the past year and a half?

In order to determine the most appropriate support, schools, districts, and community partners must listen to and center the needs of young people and their families, with the goal of more effective coordination of services and practices. While an individualized, collaborative case management approach for students would be resource intensive, there must be a focus on practical and innovative supports that are developed in partnership with each student’s family or support unit. 

In addition to a case management approach, schools should also supplement in-person instruction with strategies that combine additional staff and resources including: 

  • Support outside of the traditional school day, like evening and weekend high-impact tutoring or instructional time. When designing additional instructional time, schools should consider an appropriate frequency and length of time, in addition to adequate professional development for tutors.
  • Small, cohort-based intensive acceleration academies to focus on large skill gaps. As part of this strategy, small groups of students would receive support in a cohort model, typically during holiday and summer breaks and weekends. 
  • Structured partnerships with families to collaboratively set annual, quarterly, and monthly goals. Such a partnership is similar to the case management model for students with disabilities who have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) or young adults receiving intensive counseling. As part of the partnership, these goals would align to a personalized learning plan that is based on the needs of the student. The benefits of such a plan include student ownership, more flexible content, and data-driven decisions.
  • Evidence-based literacy instruction, especially for younger students and English language learners. This can also be coupled with effective parent empowerment resources and tools. 
  • Leveraging innovative instructional models, such as blended learning models, flipped classrooms, or project-based learning models.

While a safe return to in-person school will support the needs of many young people, there may also be opportunities to provide interventions outside a traditional classroom. Some of these interventions could include alternative high schools, high-quality virtual learning, mastery or competency-based learning models, learning pods, and micro-schools or homeschooling. These interventions would be especially beneficial for students whose needs were not being met by traditional in-person school prior to the pandemic. 

In the coming months and years, schools, districts, and other partners must ensure that they center the needs of all students, especially the most marginalized students, when making instructional decisions. These practice-based decisions should be supported by coherent policy recommendations, up next in this series.