School Finance

Overview

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. 

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.

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History and Background: School Finance

History

The history of K-12 funding is closely aligned with the legal definition of children’s right to an equitable and adequate education, and to America’s racist history.

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Data and Research: School Finance

A vast array of data and research exists to better understand and contextualize education finance, with more coming out every year.

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How to Cover a School Budget Process

A local school board’s most important decision each year is approving the budget. 

Budgets for the following school year usually are crafted and passed in the spring and can take months to finalize. 

The best reporting strategy is to attend school boards’ finance committee meetings, and read primary documents, such as meeting minutes, budget presentations and the annual budget book. 

Report

Counting Kids and Tracking Funds in Pre-K and Kindergarten

“Even as the availability of data on K-12 education programs has exploded over the past decade, the American education system suffers from an acute lack of some of the most basic information about publicly funded programs for young children. Although, for example, pre-K often comprises significant investments by state and federal governments, in many localities it is difficult to determine how many children receive publicly funded pre-K services or to make fair comparisons between local programs.”

Key Coverage

New Attendance Push Prized by Students, Educators

The attendance push has been particularly strong in California, New York, Texas and other states where schools funding is based on how many children are in their seats each day, rather than enrollment. Several California districts have made a back-to-school ritual of reminding parents that schools lose money whenever kids are out.

Key Coverage

California Defunds Program to Fix ‘Slum’ Schools

Eight years after California settled a landmark lawsuit promising hundreds of millions of dollars to repair shoddy school facilities, more than 700 schools still are waiting for their share of funds as students take classes on dilapidated campuses with health and safety hazards. California has funded less than half of the $800 million required by the Emergency Repair Program, which grew out of a class-action lawsuit against the state that former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger agreed to settle.

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Special Reports on School Improvement Grants

This series of three special reports examines implementation of the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. The first special report, Schools with Federal Improvement Grants Face Challenges in Replacing Principals and Teachers, looks at how states, districts, and schools are addressing challenges related to SIG staffing requirements.

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EdCounts database, finance categories

This database “compiles state-level information on K-12 education from sources such as the U.S. Department of Education, Market Data Retrieval, and education policy organizations like the Education Commission of the States and the National Center for Educational Accountability.” A valuable resource for producing a variety of charts and graphs.

Report

Does Money Matter in Education?

This report, published in 2012, concludes that “In short, money matters, resources that cost money matter, and more equitable distribution of school funding can improve outcomes. Policymakers would be well-advised to rely on high-quality research to guide the critical choices they make regarding school finance.

Key Coverage

Too Big to Fix

EWA 2012 National Reporting Contest winner. Crumbling school buildings can impede academic achievement, but what happens when the public votes down bond measures to upgrade the infrastructure? This series of articles looks at the impasse between school boards and the voters, and cost-saving tricks to fine tune the walls of public instruction. (The Journal News)

Key Coverage

The Right Move?

EWA 2012 National Reporting Contest winner. Of the many problems turnaround schools face, the intersection of finances and performance goals is often at the heart of what make or break them. Many of these schools face a dilemma: They need students to keep their budgets and staff intact, but find it tough to improve academics with too many low-achievers.

Key Coverage

Back to School for the Billionaires

Newsweek and the Center for Public Integrity “crunched the numbers on graduation rates and test scores in 10 major urban districts—from New York City to Oakland—which got windfalls from…four top philanthropists. The results, though mixed, are dispiriting proof that money alone can’t repair the desperate state of urban education.”

Key Coverage

Tight Budgets Mean Squeeze in Classrooms

When tis report was published, “millions of public school students across the nation [were] seeing their class sizes swell because of budget cuts and teacher layoffs, undermining a decades-long push by parents, administrators and policy makers to shrink class sizes.”

Key Coverage

The National Stimulus Project

Reporters from 36 news outlets in 27 states spent nearly three months examining the impact of the historic influx of cash from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. They found that the stimulus package’s long-term impact on public education is far from certain. Indeed, many of the resulting policy changes are already endangered by political squabbles and the massive budget shortfalls still facing recession-battered state and local governments.