In the United States of America, education finance is about more than just spreadsheets and budget hearings - it truly is a civil rights issue. The quality and availability of educational resources has a direct impact on student outcomes. Without equitable distribution of resources, our education system can only reproduce the same inequality that our students bring with them to school each day. There’s a double bottom line in education: yes, the books should balance at the end of the year, but all students should also be growing intellectually, socially, emotionally, and culturally. Student success is more than just literacy or STEM scores; it’s college and career readiness and learning how to become an active and engaged member of our democracy. That success begins with how we fund our schools.
American Investment in K12 Education
In the U. S., we invest nearly $700 billion dollars each year in K-12 public schools to ensure that every student has the opportunity to succeed. We renew this commitment with each reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) and nearly all states enshrine a right to education in their constitutions or laws. As a nation, we make a large investment in universal education, but gross disparities in achievement across racial and socioeconomic lines prove that the way we allocate this investment must improve.
The Impact of ESSA
New funding regulations in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) will illuminate glaring inequities in school funding, which will force school districts and communities to answer difficult questions about how we value, allocate, and control educational resources. The largest program contained in ESSA, a reauthorization of ESEA, is known as Title I, and it is meant to supply schools and districts that serve economically disadvantaged students with additional resources to ensure greater equity. Unfortunately, Title I dollars alone do not result in equitable access to resources.
The single biggest line item in district and school budgets is compensation. According to NCES, personnel expenditures (salaries and benefits) account for nearly 90% of school budgets. In our recent post A Tale of Two Teacher Salaries, we show two possible methods for allocating teacher salaries to schools using average or actual salaries. The former method takes an average of all salaries across the district and applies them to school budgets equally, while the latter method allocates the actual salaries of teachers to the schools at which they work. Most districts use years of experience as the main factor in salary schedules, and research shows that the most experienced teachers tend to cluster at schools with the fewest low-income students.
If ESSA will require that school districts report how resources are distributed across schools, districts may need to reevaluate how they value, compensate, and place teachers. School leaders must evaluate resource tradeoffs: is a teacher with 10 years of experience more or less effective than a teacher with 3 years of experience and a classroom aid? Teachers aren’t cogs. Mindlessly shuffling educators across schools using forced transfers for the sake of evening a fiscal score could wreak havoc on classrooms and communities. It’s not a viable solution to achieving resource equity. But what would be?
ESSA is a necessary first step toward improving education for all students, but we know that solving inequity won’t happen overnight. Fixing systemic problems takes time and effort. It also requires buy-in from districts and communities, and a commitment to making better use of available funds and resources.
About the Author
Jess Gartner is the founder and CEO of Allovue, where edtech meets fintech - #edfintech! Allovue was founded by educators, for educators. We combine powerful financial technology with education data, giving administrators the power to connect spending to student achievement. Jess has been featured as one of Forbes Magazine’s 30 Under 30 in Education (2015, 2016 All-Star), The Baltimore Sun’s Women to Watch (2013), and Baltimore Magazine’s 40 Under 40 (2013). In 2014, she was recognized as the Maryland Smart CEO Innovator of the Year in the Emerging Business category. Before founding Allovue, Jess studied education policy at the University of Pennsylvania and taught in schools around the world, including Thailand, South Africa, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. As a Teach for America corps member, she taught middle school humanities in Baltimore City and received her M.A. in teaching from Johns Hopkins University.