Schools Provide Greater Transparency with New ESSA Provisions

New provisions of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which was signed into law by former President Barack Obama in 2015, will put schools across the United States and Wisconsin under further scrutiny by their communities. 

The act’s first priority is to promote equal opportunity for all students. It helps states identify low-performing public schools and low-performing student groups, and then how to better allocate funding.

According to the Wisconsin Policy Forum, additions to the law require the state to report per-pupil spending and spending source by school in each district instead of by the district as a whole. With this comes greater financial transparency than schools were previously asked to provide.

Senior researcher Anne Chapman of the Wisconsin Policy Forum noted that these numbers hold within them a whole story about student spending, and these new provisions alone won’t show the bigger picture.

“More information is good in that it gives you more tools to address a problem, but you have to interpret it correctly in order for it to be effective,” Chapman said. 

The new provisions will make it more clear how spending is broken down in districts that have multiple schools, such as districts with multiple elementary schools. Even if one school is spending more than the other, it doesn’t necessarily mean that one is getting a better level of treatment, Chapman said.

“One school may be serving a student population that has high educational needs and therefore kind of qualifies for special funding both at the state and federal level, and that would be an intended difference,” she said. “You’d be attracting extra resources to serve, for example, students experiencing poverty or students with disabilities.”

Chapman said there are various other factors that influence school spending, such as transportation needs, older facilities, varying levels of teacher compensation and student age groups. Students at the high school level, for instance, may require more spending than students at the elementary level.

“This is what I call school, district and community effects,” Chapman said. “To the extent that you can look at differences between schools and sort of rule out those expected differences, if you still are seeing differences in how much you’re spending per student, then you might have some valuable information to say that maybe there are some inequities here.”

This will encourage school administrators to ask themselves whether there are unintended inequities in how they’re spending, she said. It opens up a conversation to drive positive change.

Because most Door County schools are demographically similar and house their elementary, middle and high schools in one building, it might be harder to see this new provision in action. 

“For districts with only one school per grade, like what we have in Door County, I have yet to see or hear anything substantive when it comes to public perception,” Sturgeon Bay Superintendent Dan Tjernagel said. “I’m guessing the changes and reporting of data will spark a wide variety of conversations in larger communities, though.”

Transparency will provide more information to schools and communities, but it must be interpreted correctly. There’s a risk that these numbers could be taken out of context, Chapman said, and districts haven’t had accessible data before or the chance to explain why there may be differences in per-pupil spending.

“The increased transparency opens up the opportunity for people to misinterpret or mischaracterize the data,” Chapman said.

This level of transparency already exists at schools such as Southern Door, business manager Mark Logan said, because it has just one school per grade level, compared to other districts with multiple schools serving one grade level.

State report cards and student achievement data are open to the public, and now communities will be able to compare those data with the new per-pupil expenditure data.

David Desmond, pupil services director, doesn’t think there’s anything new in that respect for Southern Door. In terms of student achievement and closing the gaps in student learning, he said that’s what they’re always looking to do. In their current reports, addressing subgroups such as special-needs students or English-language learners are at the forefront, he said.

“I wouldn’t foresee a big change in what [the information] would have us do,” Desmond said. “I think we’re working really hard at that.”

Though a certain resource level is needed for students to see high achievement, there still isn’t a direct correlation between spending and achievement, Chapman said. Schools can receive similar amounts of funding but still have different student-achievement levels.

“There are too many moving parts within a school system to say money doesn’t matter,” Chapman said. “Money definitely does matter, but it’s not the only driving factor. It’s not the case that the more money you pump, the more achievement you’re going to get. The dynamics are much more complicated than that.”

School districts began reporting these expenditures during the 2018-19 school year, and they are set to be released in June 2020.