Three Steps to Address the Fairness of School Funding Through ESSA

K-12

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This guest post comes from Drew Atchison, researcher; Aaron Butler, principal technical assistance consultant; and Jesse Levin, principal research economist at American Institutes for Research (AIR). Views expressed in guest posts are those of the authors.

A key goal of public education is to provide equitable opportunities for students, regardless of their backgrounds and circumstances. Achievement gaps on state standardized tests based on differences in family income levels are staggeringly wide and have become larger over time. This can be particularly troubling considering waning upward mobility and the increasing necessity of a postsecondary education for entry into the middle class.

The Every Student Succeeds Act provides states and districts an opportunity to work toward more equitable student outcomes — as long as they know how to leverage the provisions of the law to create change in their own contexts. Specifically, ESSA recognizes the challenge of within-district inequity of resource distribution and contains several provisions to support financial transparency. Mainstream education finance research makes it clear that reducing gaps in student outcomes can be achieved with adequate funding that is equitably distributed — and these provisions have the potential to make a major impact. However, this work has focused on funding differences between districts rather than at the more granular school level.

Earlier this year, AIR released an action guide, “Using ESSA to Improve the Fairness of School Funding,” to support education leaders who want take a closer look at how resources are allocated to schools within districts.

How can education leaders get started?

  1. Engage stakeholders to build capacity around per-pupil expenditure data. ESSA requires that states report school-level, per-pupil spending on their annual report cards. Not only does this requirement help promote transparency, but it can also serve as an opportunity to engage stakeholders. For example, district leaders can host school-level meetings where spending data are shared with parents and other stakeholders to have meaningful community-wide conversations about what the data show and how to improve (or maintain) equity.
  1. Use school improvement efforts to better understand resource allocation. ESSA also requires districts to conduct a comprehensive needs assessment for any school that has been identified as needing comprehensive support and improvement. This enables district and school leaders to candidly examine how resource allocation practices and decisions influence students’ educational opportunities and outcomes. For instance, they can determine whether the existing allocation of resources matches the priorities in their school improvement plan, whether any resources are being over- or under-utilized and how they might improve future resource allocation planning and decision-making.
  1. Evaluate whether a different funding approach, such as weighted student funding, is appropriate. Another ESSA provision offers districts an opportunity to engage in a pilot of student-centered funding programs, also known as weighted student funding. Under weighted student funding (WSF) systems, a district shifts away from primarily allocating staff to schools and instead provides a significant portion of resources in the form of dollars that are distributed based on the needs of students being served. WSF is intended to improve the equity and transparency with which resources are allocated, as well as provide school leaders with flexibility to apply their funding allocations in ways that best meet their students’ needs. For more information on WSF, refer to this first-of-its kind research report that details the use of these types of systems across the country.

For each of the above actions, AIR provides resources to further support education leaders in their efforts to use ESSA to improve funding fairness. For example, the Strategic School Funding for Results project describes the approach AIR has taken to develop and implement more equitable and transparent strategies for allocating resources in California school districts.

Without an equitable distribution of resources to schools, students may not have equal opportunities to succeed. ESSA encourages states and districts to critically evaluate their current funding systems, and the AIR ESSA action guide was specifically designed to offer education leaders strategies and resources to implement changes that can make a difference.

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