Rethinking the Revenue Side of the K-12 Funding Equation

Most discussions of school funding focus on “how much.” There is a good reason for this: the end goal of any finance system is for all school districts to have enough to meet their students’ needs. Yet achieving this goal is as much about how money is allocated as it is about how much is raised (or spent) overall.

On average, about 45 percent of all K-12 revenue comes from state sources (e.g., sales and income tax), about 45 percent comes from local sources (mostly property tax), and the remaining 10 or so percent is federal aid. Yet these three revenue “streams” are typically handed out to districts in very different ways, and states vary widely in terms of their state/local “splits.” As a result, two states serving similar student populations might spend the same amount per pupil but exhibit vastly different adequacy and equity outcomes depending on the source of those funds and how they are allocated.

In a couple of recent Shanker Institute reports (here and here), we’ve been looking into this “revenue side” of the school finance equation, with a focus on finding better ways to collect and distribute all three sources of K-12 revenue (federal, state, and local), without necessarily increasing the overall amount of funding.

Beyond the Blame Game: Remote Schooling Was Predicted By Spending Adequacy

Our guest author today is Mark Weber, a member of the research team for the School Finance Indicators Database project. He is also the Special Analyst for Education Policy at the New Jersey Policy Perspective, and a Lecturer at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education.

It’s become an article of faith on the political right: teachers unions forced schools to go remote during the pandemic. But what if that’s not true? What if there’s actually more to the story?

In a new working paper, Bruce Baker and I consider another possibility: Schools that are inadequately funded were more likely to go remote in the 2020-2021 school year, the first full year after the pandemic hit. While we wouldn’t say that funding inadequacy was the sole cause of remote schooling, we do document a relationship between the two that calls into question the idea that unionization was the only or even primary reason for the loss of live schooling.

The Rise and Fall of the Teacher Evaluation Reform Empire

Teacher evaluation reform during the late 2000s and 2010s was one of the fastest and widespread education policy changes in recent history. Thanks mostly to Race to the Top and ESEA “waivers,” over a period of about 10 years, the vast majority of the nation’s school districts installed new teacher evaluations. These new systems were quite different from their predecessors in terms of design, with 3-5 (rather than dichotomous) rating categories incorporating multiple measures (including some based on student testing results). And, in many states, there were varying degrees of rewards and/or consequences tied to the ratings (Steinberg and Donaldson 2016).

A recent working paper offers what is to date the most sweeping assessment of the impact of teacher evaluation reform on student outcomes, with data from 44 states and D.C. As usual, I would encourage you to read the whole paper (here's an earlier ungated version released in late 2021). It is terrific work by a great team of researchers (Joshua Bleiberg, Eric Brunner, Erika Harbatkin, Matthew Kraft, and Matthew Springer), and I’m going to describe the findings only superficially. We’ll get into a little more detail below, but the long and short of it is that evaluation reform had no statistically detectable aggregate effect on student test scores or attainment (i.e., graduation or college enrollment).

This timely analysis, in combination with the research on evaluations over the past few years, provides an opportunity to look back on this enormous reform effort, and whether and how states and districts might move forward.

How To Support Teachers' Well-Being During COVID-19? Prioritize Relationships With Students.

Our guest authors today are Kristabel Stark, postdoctoral research associate at the University of Maryland, and Nathan Jones, associate professor of special education and education policy at Boston University. 

As schools around the country get ready to reopen this month, we’ve heard a lot of talk about masks, ventilation systems, tablets, and internet access. But in the midst of these logistical conversations, it’s been easy to overlook the thing that matters most for a successful return to school: teachers.  For teachers, factors associated with COVID-19 have challenged core dimensions of their work. As school gets underway this year, and building and district administrators strategize how to go about rebuilding again in the midst of a pandemic, our research suggests that one action is critical: prioritizing relationship building between teachers and students. We find that, of all of teachers’ daily activities, it is their work with students that is most strongly associated with positive emotions. And, this relationship actually intensified in the early months of the pandemic.

We did not set out to write a COVID paper. In the fall of 2019, we set out to conduct a longitudinal study of teachers’ daily work experiences, including how they budgeted their time across activities and how their emotions varied within and across schooldays. In the study, nearly 250 teachers in two urban school districts completed time diary surveys in which they recorded how long they spent on various activities, who they spent their time with, and how they felt during these activities and interactions.  We wanted to understand how teachers’ emotions were associated with specific professional activities, and how those emotions changed over the course of a school year. But of course, we didn’t foresee that, midway through data collection, a global pandemic would emerge, temporarily transforming the nature of teachers’ work lives and professional experiences.

How Non-Zero Tolerance Policies Better Support Our Students: Part II

As I discussed in a previous post, one of the most controversial approaches to school discipline in the U.S. is the use of zero-tolerance policies. These policies include exclusionary practices, such as office referrals and suspension, which remove students from their classroom and isolate them from the school community. Zero tolerance policies in schools have been shown to have a detrimental effect on all students, particularly Black and Brown students. Skiba et al (2011), for instance, wrote about how these punitive methods cause students to miss critical instructional time and feel less connected to their teachers and peers. 

Zero tolerance policies are embedded in high-stakes accountability structures. As White (2020) states, these policies overly focus on student behavior and the idea that individual hard work is the best way to promote high test scores. They do not foster a sense of community- and relationship- building. While policymakers had positive intentions in promoting a more rigorous and equalitarian experience for students—laying out each infraction and punishment with the intention of applying discipline uniformly across student groups—that is not what has happened. According to the aforementioned research, Black and Brown students were still punished more harshly for the same infractions than were their peers. Thus, the negative consequences of these policies have far outweighed the benefits. 

Many schools are implementing alternative methods of discipline that stress the importance of taking proactive measures to reduce exclusionary practices. In the previous post, I focused on the importance of restorative justice policies as a strong strategy to support children and their development. But there are also multiple alternative models that have been shown to be effective among students of varying ages and demographics. These models focus on relationship development, and staff training, which I will discuss below. Specifically, the three other models include: School Wide Positive Behavior Support (SWPBS), Monarch Room, and Inclusive Skill-Building Learning Approach (ISLA). In short, the idea that zero tolerance is the only approach is unsupportable.

The Uncertain Short-Term Future Of School Growth Models

Over the past 20 years, public schools in the U.S. have come to rely more and more on standardized tests, and the COVID-19 pandemic has halted the flow of these data. This is hardly among the most important disruptions that teachers, parents, and students have endured over the past year or so. But one of the corollaries of skipping a year (or more) of testing is its implications for estimating growth models, which are statistical approaches for assessing the association between students' testing progress and those students' teachers, schools, or districts. 

This type of information, used properly, is always potentially useful, but it may be particularly timely right now, as we seek to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic affected educational outcomes, and, perhaps, how those outcomes varied by different peri-pandemic approaches to schooling. This includes the extent to which there were meaningful differences by student subgroup (e.g., low-income students who may have had more issues with virtual schooling). 

To be clear, the question of when states should resume testing should be evaluated based on what’s best for schools and students, and in my view this decision should not include consideration of any impact on accountability systems (the latest development is that states will not be allowed to cancel testing entirely but may be allowed to curtail it). In either case, though, the fate of growth models over the next couple of years is highly uncertain. The models rely on tracking student test scores over time, and so skipping a year (and maybe even more) is obviously a potential problem. A new working paper takes a first step toward assessing the short-term feasibility of growth estimates (specifically school and district scores). But this analysis also provides a good context for a deeper discussion of how we use (and sometimes misuse) testing data in education policy.

School District Spending And Equal Educational Opportunity

The fact that school districts vary widely in terms of funding is often lamented in our education policy debate. If you think about it, though, that’s not a bad thing by itself. In fact, in an ideal school funding system, we would expect to see differences between districts in their spending levels, even big differences, for the simple reason that the cost of educating students varies a great deal across districts (e.g., different student populations, variation in labor costs, etc.). 

The key question is whether districts have the resources to meet their students’ needs. In other words, is school district spending adequate? In collaboration with Bruce Baker and Mark Weber from Rutgers University, we have just published a research brief and new public dataset that addresses this question for over 12,000 public school districts in the U.S.

There is good news and bad news. The good news is that thousands of districts enjoy funding levels above and beyond our estimates of adequate levels, in some cases two or three times higher. The bad news is that these well-funded districts co-exist with thousands of other school systems, some located within driving distance or even in the next town over, where investment is so poorly aligned with need that funding levels are a fraction of estimated costs. To give a rough sense of the magnitude of the underfunding, if we add up all the negative funding gaps in these latter districts (not counting the districts with adequate funding), the total is $104 billion.

Evidence In Education: Is Supply Meeting Teachers' Demand

In today’s public schools, teachers and administrators are constantly pressured to implement new reforms and initiatives, most of which claim to be research- or science-based. Schools are often viewed as the recipients of new policies and new knowledge generated by research. In So Much Reform, So Little ChangeCharles Payne states “Best Practice discourse lends itself to decontextualized thinking, reducing the problem of urban schooling to a cognitive one: if only our teachers and principals knew how to do it in the Big City...we should spend some time thinking with school people about what those reasons might be rather than just issuing more exhortations from on high” (p. 63). Including educators in the conversation is crucial for a successful rollout of any evidence-based intervention. Additionally, in order to best support our teachers, it is imperative we develop a system for them to have access to evidence-informed practices that are contextualized and can be tailored to their varying needs. 

While there are many problems with the “research to practice” approach, one barrier is that schools are frequently not given enough training, resources, and support to make sense of educational research. Educators need evidence, innovation, and new approaches; after all, much of their job is to constantly adapt their ways of teaching to meet the unique and changing needs of their students. But right now, too many educators are doing this work without the necessary tools to be successful. In this post I would like to sketch out a tool that could improve access to and applicability of research. By access, I refer not only to the ability of finding and downloading journal articles and other sources, but also to having the knowledge to discern questionable research. According to Paula J. Stanovich and Keith E. Stanovich (2003), a failure to discern good and bad research can cause teachers to try new methods that are not strongly supported by peer-reviewed research. Applicability refers to the extent to which research has practical implications for teachers.

One Page Summaries Of Your State's School Finance System

For the past few years, the Shanker Institute has been collaborating with Bruce Baker and Mark Weber of Rutgers University to publish the School Finance Indicators Database (SFID), a collection of finance and resource allocation measures for policymakers, journalists, parents, and the public. 

The State Indicators Database (SID), the primary product of the SFID, is freely available to the public, but it includes about 125 variables. So, even if you know exactly the types of measures you are looking for, compiling the data for a state or a group of states might present a challenge. While we have tried to make the data accessible for non-researchers, we realize that it can still be difficult for a lot of people. 

We have therefore just published 51 state school finance profiles (with help from ASI fellow Lauren Schneider), which pull together a digestible amount of information into one place for each state (and D.C.). You can download the profiles individually or as a group.

How Much Segregation Is There Within Schools?

Our national discourse on school segregation, whether income- or race-/ethnicity-based, tends to focus on the separation of students between schools within districts. There are good reasons for this, including the fact that the majority of desegregation efforts have been within-district efforts. Sometimes lost in this focus, however, is the importance of segregation between districts.

This distinction can be confusing, so consider a large metro area with a central city district surrounded by a group of suburban districts. There may be extensive racial/ethnic segregation of students between schools within those districts, with students of color concentrated in some schools and their White peers concentrated in others. But total segregation across the entire metro area is also a function of segregation between districts - i.e., the degree to which students of certain races or ethnicities are concentrated in some districts and not others (e.g., students of color in the city, white students in the suburbs). In a sense, if we view diversity as a resource, there are multiple "chokepoints" at which that resource is distributed down to the next level—from states to metro areas to districts to schools—and this can exacerbate segregation.

recent working paper provides one of relatively few pieces of recent evidence suggesting that, in addition to racial and ethnic segregation between districts and between schools within districts, there may be an additional important "layer": segregation within schools.