School funding can be very murky terrain to navigate for journalists. When the Every Student Succeeds Act took effect during the 2017-18 school year, it became a bright spot for data advocates. Under the federal K-12 education law, school districts across the U.S. were required to disclose school-level spending for the first time.
Prior to ESSA, journalists or researchers would be “begging school districts to share (that level of data),” according to Laura Anderson, associate director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, which has been analyzing school-level spending data for the 2019 and 2020 fiscal years through a joint effort known as “National Education Resource Database on Schools” or NERD$.
Anderson and the Urban Institute’s Kristin Blagg shared some school finance databases developed by their respective organizations and others during an Education Writers Association workshop at the 2022 SXSW EDU Conference & Festival. The Urban Institute is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, D.C.
These databases allow reporters to compare per pupil funding across districts or control for certain factors, such as property taxes or high-poverty or high-wealth districts, to see where equity gaps are most evident.
Let’s take a look:
Participants featured in this panel:
Kristin Blagg, senior research associate, Center on Education Data and Policy at the Urban Institute
Laura Anderson, associate director, Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University
- https://edunomicslab.org/nerds-download/: This page run by the Edunomics Lab has downloadable school spending data files state-by-state for the 2019 fiscal year.
- https://edunomicslab.org/nerds/: This is the main landing page for similar data for the 2020 fiscal year, but NERD$ staffers are still cleaning and validating data and hope to publish the data soon.
- https://edunomicslab.org/fy20-data/: Additionally, this page lists states’ files that have been “cleaned and transformed” but not yet validated.
Interactive Data Displays
- https://edunomicslab.org/spending-v-outcomes/: Shows in scatterplot form spending vs. outcomes for schools in different states for the 2018-19 school year.
- Allows users to filter by specific school districts, school characteristics and student demographics. It shows how money is allocated to schools and “which schools are most able to leverage their money to maximize student outcomes.”
- http://funded.edbuild.org/: A comprehensive menu describing each state’s funding laws. You can view basic summaries or generate your own custom report by comparing state to state.
- https://apps.urban.org/features/education-equity-tool/: The Urban Institute’s tool compares access to opportunity for students across different racial backgrounds (Black, Asian, Hispanic, white, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, two or more).
- It measures the access gap across three different categories: average share of teachers with more than two years of experience; share of high school students who have access to both an Advanced Placement (AP) math and AP science class; and share of high school students who have access to adequate school counselors (one counselor for every 250 students).
- https://shiny.edbuild.org/apps/edbuild-dashboard/: Draws from a master dataset for the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years.
- Allows users to analyze school district finances nationally or state-by-state by adjusting for factors like per-pupil revenue, percentage of kids who are English language learners or qualify for free lunch, median household income, etc.
- Blagg said this tool can help identify “broad trends around student needs” and help “put numbers up and see where relationships are.”
- Education Data Explorer: An online download tool of the Urban Institute’s Education Data Portal for K-12 and higher ed. Draws from such data sources as the Common Core of Data, Civil Rights Data Collection, College Scorecard, and Federal Student Aid.
- This produces merged datasets.
- https://apps.urban.org/features/funding-formulas/: How do school funding formulas work?
- https://www.urban.org/research/publication/making-sense-state-school-funding-policy/view/full_report: Here’s a 2017 report from the Urban Institute on school funding.
School Finance Story Ideas
To inspire stories based on these databases and interactive displays, here are some pertinent questions Anderson and Blagg suggested reporters should explore:
- Which schools in your district spend the most, or the least, per student?
- Do small schools get more funding and should they?
- Does your school district spend fairly across regions or by school type?
- Are uneven teacher salaries a factor of concern?
- How much money is managed centrally?
- Are any schools beating the odds with the money they have allocated to them?
- Do students of color or in low-income areas get a fair share of funding, or which students get a greater share of school funding? Is it intentional? How do these allocations happen?