Back-to-school season is usually accompanied by a spirit of optimism — and advocates have a reason to be hopeful. Bolstered by resources from COVID-19 relief funding, system leaders have a golden opportunity to address longstanding inequities and improve access to broadband and devices, educators and support staff, and critical student services.

Policymakers and school systems leaders promised that the schools to which students would return would go beyond what was the status quo. Advocates can maintain this commitment by ensuring COVID-19 relief funding, including the $125 billion investment in education through the American Rescue Plan (ARP), is allocated equitably. Students need more resources to support their overall well-being and address unfinished learning, especially students who were systemically denied opportunities prior to the pandemic.

There are concrete ways advocates and community members can advance school funding equity now and going forward by ensuring:

  • Federal, state, and district funding is being used to support the holistic needs of students. That includes the instructional; social, emotional, and academic; nutrition; and safety needs of the students who were most affected by the pandemic:
    • State and district leaders are required under the maintenance of equity provisions in ARP to shield the highest-need districts and schools from cuts in resources, including funding and staff. Programming, like enrichment opportunities and advanced courses, should also be protected.
    • State and district leaders should equitably distribute state, local, and additional federal funds. Per-pupil allocations of federal stabilization funds should be greater in schools serving high concentrations of students from low-income backgrounds, students with disabilities, English learners, students experiencing homelessness, and students in foster care. It’s also a ripe time to consider ways to improve equity in state funding formulas, which control the majority of funding that goes toward districts and schools.
  • Districts engage stakeholders in decisions around how funds will be allocated and used to address student needs:
    • State and districts are supposed to provide resources and staff to support family and community and engagement around funding decisions. To boost inclusive and equitable community engagement, districts and schools should use incentives and recruitment strategies for harder-to-reach community members.
    • Leaders of the engagement process should be representative of students and families by considering all forms of diversity, such as socio-economic, racial/ethnic, linguistic, gender identity, and family definition (e.g., foster families).
    • Districts should make engagement more than an ARP-compliance exercise. Decision-making meetings need to be engaging, with opportunities for the community to create proposals and deliberate with local leaders.
    • Tip: Implement an inclusive and robust participatory budgeting process that solicits the input of parents, educators, and staff in deciding how to spend a substantial part of the district or school budget.
  • There is transparent and equity-oriented reporting of federal, state, and local spending, especially at the school level. The influx of additional federal resources and the importance of understanding how ARP funds are being spent and whether they are being spent wisely, makes now an ideal time to invest in data reporting improvements and long-term transparency.
    • Your state leaders should go beyond ESSA compliance by including contextual information about district and school characteristics, including the demographics of the students served at the school.
    • School spending reports should include helpful comparisons of spending across schools in the district or state, with helpful visualizations, definitions of key terms, and translations.
    • Tip: This can be done. Urge leaders in your state department of education to learn more about how state leaders in Illinois implemented their fiscal transparency effort, with meaningful and sustained engagement of advocates and district leaders.

School spending data can be used to ask and answer your questions about school spending equity. Information about how much money is spent at schools in your community can be a powerful tool for change.

Students are relying on advocates to work with school leaders to ensure that their school is a safe, welcoming, and equitable place to learn. ESSA requires school funding transparency, and resource allocation reviews at every level that, if done well, can get to the bottom of the resource inequities that matter most for underserved students. Advocates can hold system leaders accountable on their commitments by uplifting the voices of diverse community stakeholders and centering student needs.