Back to School Finance

School Finance

Photo credit: Motizova/Bigstock

Back to School Finance

Money matters. That’s the conclusion of a growing number of studies on how to improve the academic outcomes of America’s public school students. And it’s why education journalists should keep central to their reporting how districts and schools receive and spend money.

Public education is a massive – and costly – enterprise, with annual spending that exceeds $700 billion. The single biggest expenditure by far, about 80%, is for salaries and benefits to teachers and other employees.

Journalists have an important role in helping the public and policymakers better understand education finance, including not only topline funding levels, but also how states and districts allocate those dollars, and ultimately whether the system addresses or exacerbates inequity by race, ethnicity, and income level.

America’s overdependence on property tax revenue to pay for K-12 schooling has resulted in a foundationally inequitable K-12 finance system, experts say. Federal and state efforts to reform this system of haves and have-nots has tangled politicians up in thorny questions, such as: How much does it cost to send a child to and through school, and emerge ready for postsecondary success? How much should teachers be paid? Who should determine how money is spent?

Meanwhile, K-12 retirement and health care costs continue to skyrocket, putting additional financial pressure on state and district leaders to balance such commitments to school employees with other priorities. This has had detrimental effects on the classroom.

Poor districts struggle to pay for (and keep) effective teachers, provide professional development for educators, and ensure high-quality curriculum materials. They often can’t afford to get kids to school, keep their facilities safe and updated, and comply with state and federal mandates to provide an adequate education.

Reporters interested in K-12 finance should be ready to dive into the data, ask tough questions, file open records requests when necessary, and – yes –  follow the money.

Let readers know why money matters and when it matters the most.