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Are Schools Investing in Student Success? How to Investigate

Learn how to structure your FOIA request for data on how schools are spending pandemic-relief funding; find important datasets; get questions to ask, story ideas and more in this in-depth two-part explainer.

Data experts and journalists provided key insights, tools and very specific and detailed advice to help reporters better cover school finance issues.

Photo credit: Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Back to How to Cover the Story

Prior to COVID-19, reporting on the formula your school district uses to determine how much federal, state and local dollars it spends on each student might have gotten edited down to a couple of paragraphs inside of a larger story, but not anymore.

The disruptions the global pandemic made to in-person learning, fierce debates on curricula and even the humorous storylines about school budgeting on the ABC television series “Abbott Elementary,” have sparked discourse among lawmakers, students, families and their communities.

During these times of great debate on how communities invest in student success, the Education Writers Association brought together data experts and journalists at the 2023 SXSW EDU Conference. The panel helped education reporters gain insight into tools and techniques to better cover school finance issues. 

In this two-part in-depth explainer, get important background from these data experts and many practical tips from journalists.

Data Experts

  • Laura Anderson, Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University
  • Ivy Morgan, The Education Trust 

Journalists

  • Krista Johnson, The Courier Journal
  • Mila Koumpilova, Chalkbeat Chicago
  • Meghan Mangrum, freelance 

Part I: Data Experts Share School Finance Tools 

The State of Funding Equity Data Tool

Incorporating actual revenue data, The State of Funding Equity Data Tool can help journalists analyze school funding equity across the U.S. and within each state.

This recently launched tool from nonprofit The Education Trust helps journalists explore whether a school district’s funds are distributed to make up for learning gaps among students who may need more resources, such as students of color, English learners and those in areas of high poverty. 

The tool contains data for every district and every school in the country. It includes demographic information, a database of every school funding formula for all 50 states as well as insights into how state funding cuts might impact schools.

Analysis of revenue data from 2018 to 2020 revealed that across the country, districts with the most students of color receive 16% less state and local revenue than districts with the fewest students of color. This amounts to as much as $2,700 per student.

School districts in areas of high poverty receive 5% less state and local revenue than low-poverty districts. The districts with the most English learners receive 14% less state and local revenue, compared with districts with the fewest English learners. 

But the research also has shown that money matters. 

“Increases in spending led to improved student achievement, educational attainment and higher wages with greater benefits for students from low-income backgrounds,“ Morgan said.

Additionally, Morgan found that state revenue isn’t allocated in a way to make up for inequities in local funding. 

The tool also includes insights to help reporters explore policy recommendations and best practices for equity-focused school funding.

National Education Resource Database on Schools (NERDS)

How best to use COVID-19 pandemic-relief funds is the conundrum school districts have faced over the past few years. 

In many districts, schools have shifted from using Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding for emergency and technology spending to resources to addressing learning gaps and additional instruction.

But now that this funding source may be ending, how will school districts redraw their budgets?

Journalists can browse the National Education Resource Database on Schools (NERDS) for downloadable school-by-school spending data and other insights. The database is maintained by the Edunomics Lab, a research center prioritizing education finance at Georgetown University.   

The end of emergency federal funding may lead to staff reductions, Laura Anderson, associate director of the Edunomics Lab, said. 

“There’s a high probability that we can lose many of our science and math teachers in this next round of layoffs,” she added.

NERDS includes data that helps journalists understand staffing, enrollment declines and learning gaps.  

Spending vs. Outcomes By School data from NERDS can help journalists explore trends in spending and their impact on student outcomes. 

Additionally, the tool can help journalists create bar graphs that show the breakdown of spending per student by campus or a visualization that compares spending per student to math proficiency. 

Questions to Pursue Before Pandemic-Relief Funding Expires

  • What learning gaps exist within the district? How will schools help students get back on track?
  • Does the district forecast gaps in the budget? Where? How deep? What funds exist to make up for the gap?
  • What are the trends in enrollment and staffing?
  • Is your district talking about closing schools due to a decline in enrollment? How will it decide which schools to close?
  • Will the districts consider student outcomes in determining which schools to close? How will they work with families in placing those students?

Part II: School Finance Reporting Tips From Journalists 

Veteran education reporters shared insights on best practices for covering specific school finance initiatives: 

Funding schools with property-tax increases

Placing a referendum on the ballot during a local election is one method school districts incorporate to increase funds for schools.

Krista Johnson, education reporter for The Courier Journal, covered a property-tax referendum at her previous newsroom in Montgomery, Alabama. 

She advised reporters to cover who will be impacted by a proposed property-tax increase:

  • What will the property tax increase cost the average homeowner?
  • How would the property tax increase impact district facilities, economic development and student outcomes?
  • Which schools in the district receive the most local funding support?
  • How much local funding have other school districts in the state received in the past decade?

Impact of ESSER funds on student learning

In 2022, Chalkbeat Chicago reporter Mila Koumpilova produced a series of stories that explored how Chicago Public Schools were spending the $1.6 billion in federal COVID-relief funds it received.

Her reporting and data analysis revealed that a significant percentage of ESSER funds went to technology companies and to support staff. 

FOIA requests helped her gain insight into how CPS, the fourth largest school district in the country, used the money. Here is what she asked for:

  • The total amount of ESSER funding each campus (including charter and options schools, is receiving during the current school year.
  • The amount of ESSER funding each campus is receiving during the current fiscal year in 1) flexible funding to support local unfinished learning plans, 2) targeted additional programming or school-based implementation supports, 3) programmatic investments in schools.
  • For each campus, a list of the targeted additional programming or school-based implementation supports that the school opted to provide with ESSER funds during the school year.

Covering School-Funding Formulas

In an effort to provide greater equity across the state, in 2022, Tennessee revamped its three-decade old funding formula for the more than $11 billion the state allocates for K-12 education. 

Reporter Meghan Mangrum followed this story and offered advice on how to cover a state that is changing its school-funding formula:

  • Have a conversation with your school district’s chief financial officer to gain insight into the school district’s sources of funding and its expenses.
  • Attend school board meetings and school finance workshops.
  • Seek insight from the county administrator on education finance issues.
  • Review insights on the school budget prepared by independent oversight committees in the community.
  • Check to see if there are advocacy groups that advise on school finance issues.
  • Research lawsuits or other grievances that involve school finance issues.

Questions to Ask About School-Funding Changes

  • Who is involved?
  • Who stands to gain the most? (Rural districts, charter schools, students with disabilities, etc.)
  • How will it affect local communities? (National experts, lobbyists, advocacy groups, etc.)
  • Does it mirror what other states are doing?

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