There are lots of mysteries about what happens with the $739 billion American taxpayers spend on schools each year. You can get big spreadsheets that give a general sense of average salaries, spending on big initiatives, and which states and districts got what—but it gets pretty vague and outdated after that.
Now, a key tucked into the Every Student Succeeds Act has unlocked a treasure trove of data that school finance experts predict will provide insights into the impact money has on academic learning.
Almost every state now has published school-level spending data, according to the Edunomics Lab, a think tank based at Georgetown University that's helped states comply with the ESSA requirement.
"Having total spending by school for every school in the nation is a quantum leap forward," the Edunomics Lab authors, Director Marguerite Roza, Research Associate Elizabeth Ross, and Research Fellow Lucy Hadley wrote in a brief posted on their website.
But the data is not perfect, they warn.
Up until this year, most school spending was reported in average district per-pupil amounts.
This way of reporting data, civil rights advocates theorized, hid inequities within districts, especially large urban districts that had both high-flying and academically struggling schools. The shift to more detailed financial data gained widespread support from fiscally conservative Republicans and civil rights-minded Democrats.
The architects of the new ESSA rule intend for the new data to be exploited by school board members and principals, those most involved in determining the academic needs of individual schools within districts. For school finance researchers, that data, paired with school-level test scores, can help answer a question that's bedeviled the K-12 community: Where does money matter most in the classoom?
But district administrators predicted that school spending data would only reveal where the most experienced teachers within districts worked and would pit school board members and principals against each other, bringing further, unwarranted scrutiny to districts' spending strategies.
In addition, state departments of education said they didn't have the technological tools or necessary staffing to compile school spending data. In 2017, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos extended the deadline to the end of the 2019-20 school year for states to meet this portion of the law.
Edunomics said that by the beginning of this month, more than 42 states and the District of Columbia have mostly complied with the law, with several other states set to role out school spending data in the coming months.
The data, they said, allows users to compare school spending numbers within districts. But it gets more difficult to compare school spending amounts across districts. Only nine states, they said, allow users to compare school spending amounts across districts on their websites.
"In some states, we've counted up to nine clicks to get to the data—not exactly user friendly and seamlessly transparent," the authors wrote.
The data hasn't gotten much use so far, the organization found, pointing out that departments receive few inquiries from school board members or other constituents about the new websites. That could be, they theorized, because the pandemic has taken up so much of the public's attention.
But with budget cuts looming, the organization said the data is still relevant.
"It's hard to think of a time when education leaders need financial data more as they grapple with tough financial decisions for schools," the authors said. "These data can daylight schools that were shortchanged well before the pandemic so district leaders can prioritize their protection from cuts (or at least lessen the blow)."