Guest post by Jennifer Schiess. Schiess is an associate partner at Bellwether. If you enjoyed this summer’s guest blogging and the recent guest posts then you’ll want to watch for the launch of Bellwether’s new blog the first week of November.
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Metro DC School Spending Explorer is custom-made for data junkies. It’s fun to click around the school and community information, particularly as a recently arrived DC metro area resident.
Others have already piled on with methodological questions—most vocally about the treatment of charter schools in the analysis. Setting those questions aside, Fordham’s companion analysis points out some sizeable disparities in spending among schools, even among schools in the same district serving very similar student populations. But while these data points may prove headline generating, ultimately what conclusions can we draw? I would argue none.
As a measure of school quality, spending is at best limited and at worst invalid. Research does link higher spending with higher achievement, particularly for some students, but with all sorts of caveats. And those caveats matter. As it turns out, the context of spending matters greatly. How schools spend money and on whom matters, and spending data without that context doesn’t tell you much.
Should we conclude that Jamestown Elementary is “better” than Spring Hill Elementary because it spent $2,300 more per student in 2011-12 serving a similar demographic? It may be better (Go, Jaguars!), but you can’t tell that from spending alone. And including some metric of student achievement with this data would provoke the kind of blunt analysis that does more harm than good. Smart people spend careers trying to answer questions about the relationship between education spending and student achievement. This tool doesn’t answer those questions.
As a measure of funding equity, the data fail to provide a valid picture as well. The site provides a snapshot of a single year’s spending which may not be reflective of any kind of pattern, particularly at the school level. Is the disparity between school A and school B a single year blip or a multi-year trend? Maybe school A’s scheduled refresh of its computer lab occurred that year, or maybe school B is offering enrichment opportunities directly leading to improved educational outcomes for its students. Those are two very different circumstances raising very different questions.
Further, funding equity is typically determined on the basis of access to revenues, a measure of public investment in education, not on year-to-year spending patterns, which are much more volatile. School districts and schools, like households and businesses, make all kinds of valid and different spending decisions in a given year that result in ups and downs. Even operating under the assumption that spending could be used as a proxy for revenue, the data doesn’t show funding by source. How much of the increased spending in higher-spending schools is attributable to federal funding? How much to state or local tax dollars, and how much to private or donated funds? Those are important distinctions essential to reasoned debate about educational equity.
This kind of database represents a herculean effort. Assembling school finance data across multiple states and jurisdictions and then trying to allocate district-driven budgets at the school level is a massive undertaking. There will be problems and inconsistencies, and reading through the extensive technical notes, Fordham acknowledges many of them. Perhaps if they keep it up and take care to preserve consistency across years, the data could eventually serve as a resource for trend analysis.
However, as fun as it is, clicking around spending data for a single year with limited context provokes more questions than it answers. At this point, its only value is as a conversation starter. Used as such, it may generate discussion of important equity questions—maybe even some less obvious ones, like district budget allocations to campuses and disparities in programs and resources funded through parent and community donations. The danger lies in its potential to be co-opted by politicos and others of all points of view as “evidence” of anything other than a need to dig deeper.
Jennifer Schiess is an associate partner at Bellwether Education.