For school leaders to administer a high-quality education, having money to secure valuable education resources makes a difference. For students to have a quality education, they need access to strong and diverse teachers, trained school counselors and nurses, challenging instruction and assignments, internet access, safe and clean facilities, etc. But all too often, schools that serve large numbers of Black, Latino, or Native students or students from low-income backgrounds are denied these essential educational opportunities because of a lack of adequate funding. And it’s just not how much money a state or school district has, but how well that money is spent.

Thanks to a new requirement in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), state education websites now include important information on per-student school spending, as opposed to districtwide averages (which were the norm but made it hard to spot funding inequities between schools within districts). As school districts spend federal relief funds and target resources to the students who are most underserved — to address unfinished learning and meet the increased social, emotional, and academic needs of students brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic — now’s a good time for parents and advocates use this mandate to gain some insight into how schools and districts are allocating their funds.

This new school spending data has the potential to allow policymakers, family and community members, and education advocates to learn how much funding is being spent at every public school in the country. When clearly reported, this data can help answer stakeholders’ questions about spending equity and help them advocate for more school funding, protect schools from budget cuts, and push to eliminate funding inequities. School spending data can be a powerful tool for change if reports are complete, accessible, and include additional contextual information about student need in and across schools in a district.

That’s where a new Ed Trust report comes in: Going Beyond ESSA Compliance rates states on how well they are reporting school spending data and provides guidance on additional features that would improve reporting. Adopting equity-oriented practices is an important step toward achieving fiscal transparency and ensuring that parents, advocates, and district and school leaders have the information they need to advocate for funding equity.

Our 50-state scan reveals that while most states are complying with the main requirements in ESSA, the majority of states are not reporting data that is complete, accessible, and allows stakeholders to assess whether differences in spending are associated with student need, which limits its usefulness. Compliance with ESSA is a solid starting point. Yet, to ensure that all stakeholders can participate in school funding discussions, ESSA reporting requirements should be considered a baseline to build upon, not the end goal.

So, what should advocates do? The good news is that there are several opportunities for advocates to encourage state leaders to improve reporting:

  1. Share the findings of our analysis with state education leaders. We’ve made it easy to send an email to your chief state school officer from the state-specific summary pages in our report. You can also request a meeting with state leaders to review the findings for your state.
  2. Urge leaders in your state department of education to learn more about how state leaders in Illinois planned and implemented their fiscal transparency effort, with meaningful and sustained engagement of districts leaders and advocates.
  3. It is well within the purview of state leaders to update their report cards without federal say-so, but advocates might urge state leaders to take a page from Delaware, which passed legislation to help ensure that the state’s school spending data would be reported in a way that increased understanding among parents and community members.
  4. It is the state’s responsibility to publish this data — and state leaders should take that responsibility seriously. But advocates can help in the short term. That’s exactly what BEST NC did in North Carolina when they created (with input from the state education agency) a user-friendly dashboard that enables a broad audience of stakeholders to examine school-level spending data and gather insights

State legislators and state staff have made efforts to publish per-student school spending data. But for this data to inform conversations and decisions about school funding and resource equity, state leaders must continuously improve their school spending reports. The influx of additional federal resources and the importance of understanding how American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds were spent and whether they were spent wisely, makes now an ideal time to invest in data reporting improvements and long-term transparency.

  1. If your state’s dashboard is missing key features included in our analysis, we recommend implementing them in this order — which considers their importance for enabling equity-oriented comparisons and relative ease of implementation:
  2. Include the elements required by ESSA: total per-pupil spending, spending by source of funds, and integration into school report card
  3. Include elements that help illustrate the relationship between school spending and student need: student demographics data alongside financial data, visual comparisons of school spending by student need, student performance indicators alongside financial data, data visualization
  4. Include other elements that help compare spending in one school to spending in other schools: spending by location, average district- and/or state-level spending, array of spending across districts

We urge you and your state leaders to commit to continuous improvement and make data available in a way that is accessible, complete, and coupled with information about student need. Incorporating more of these elements will ensure that this data provides the insight that parents and advocates need to have conversations about school funding and resources with district and school leaders. Illinois proves it can be done. Visit Going Beyond ESSA Compliance to learn more about how your state can make its school-spending data reports more useful and equity-oriented.