Districts across the country are publishing and reporting school-level actual spending, many for the first time, due to new regulations in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Each school and district have different populations of students and conditions that must be taken into account before drawing conclusions about adequacy or equity of resources. But there are tactical, technical, procedural, and policy mechanisms that result in inconsistent administrative data generation for school-level spending even before adjusting for student populations.
How do we get consistent, comparable administrative data on school-level spending?
Using four distinct categories, map out the decisions you will make regarding which resources to provide to schools.
- Allocated expenditures: those already recorded at school sites.
- Debt and legal obligations: non-operating expenses to pay leases and capital bonds. Additionally, this should include non-K12 education operating expenses that are legal responsibilities of Local Education Agencies such as Early Intervention or Title I Services for Students in Private Schools.
- Attributable expenses: the remaining expenditures that are being spent in direct support of schools, such as contracted social workers and psychologists, school building utility expenditures, and curriculum development and support.
- Central Office expenses: the remaining expenses. These dollars include district-wide functions like finance, information technology infrastructure, and district leadership. While these dollars are critical to the functioning of the district, they are not in direct support of students. Most districts have central office administration costs between 5-8% of the total budget.
The primary differences between districts are what expenses are attributable and what expenses are allocated. Some districts work to allocate as many expenses as possible to school sites explicitly, so it’s important to push as many attributable dollars to individual schools as possible. The differences, then, between what’s recorded formally at school sites and what is spent in support of schools are mostly removed in favor of a single, more accurate measure of the total support students receive at each school.
Estimate Each School’s Share of Attributable Expenses
Consider how each set of attributable resources flows to schools. For example, a district may choose to attribute contracted services for special education students by multiplying these resources by the percentage of all IEP students at each school site.
Since each district makes different decisions about what dollars are formally allocated to school sites and what dollars are recorded centrally, researchers and analysts should attribute the maximum dollars to school sites before making comparisons to assess equity. Doing so reduces bias in equity analysis, especially when comparing districts that may appear to spend more in support of students because they record utilities spending in schools compared to those that record utilities centrally.
Allocated expenses and attributable expenses together represent the total support districts direct to school sites. Attribution of expenses to schools provide a more accurate basis for intra- and inter-district school-site spending comparisons to analyze equity. Most districts spend between 90-95% of dollars at school sites but record 20-50% of expenditures in central office accounts; failing to attribute expenses can cause analysts to draw false conclusions. By estimating each school’s share of attributable expenses, district leaders and researchers can better compare school site spending.
Often we analyze and compare school site spending to uncover whether schools are efficient and whether our systems of resource allocation are equitable. Neither of these questions can be adequately addressed if we don’t model and control for cost drivers and non-school based drivers of student performance.
When assessing equity, an effective analysis of school site spending must account for:
- differences in student populations associated with increased costs (i.e. students with disabilities or English Language Learners)
- differences in school district characteristics that drive cost (i.e. population sparsity, school size, and the labor market cost of wages for college graduates)
When assessing efficiency, an effective analysis of school site spending must account for:
- differences in cost drivers that are used to assess equity
- factors that drive academic performance (i.e. percentage of students in poverty and past student performance) to assess growth rather than status, where possible
With more complete baseline data and careful modeling, it is possible to assess whether school funding is equitable and to assess whether some schools are more efficient at producing quality outcomes for students.
Check out our Education Finance Guide to Understanding ESSA for more.
Ready to get started? We can help.
Our tool ACES helps districts equitably allocate resources to schools by creating attribution rules that make sense for your district's needs. Learn more by visiting acesforessa.com