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Broward among lowest in per-pupil spending. What will ESSA do?

An Education Week analysis of 2013 federal data, adjusted regionally for cost of living, found that Broward County spends $7,734 per student, which is in the bottom third of per-pupil spending nationwide. Is that bad?

Consider that 80 U.S. districts spend over $40,000 per pupil; most of them have less than 200 students. Is that good?

It's hard to tell. Are districts with lower per-pupil expenditures spending too little? Are those with high expenditures spending too much? An apples-to-apples comparison has long been difficult to make because there are so many variables in accounting procedures and local conditions.

The Every Student Succeeds Act could change that. It requires the nation's 99,000 public schools to present their per-pupil and other school spending numbers in a comparable way. The data will be shared in annual report cards for the schools, starting next school year.

"It's a big shift in how we've traditionally seen finance data," says the director of education data and information systems for the Council of Chief State School Officers. "It's going to open a window of new conversation across states and districts."

Until now, the specifics of per-pupil spending have been determined by state finance officials -- and they often use different definitions. School lunch and busing costs, for example, have sometimes been counted as district administrative costs and other times as school costs. Expenses shared between schools have been divvied up in different ways.

The new way of accounting for per-pupil, school, and district-wide spending could have political repercussions, too, according to those who have performed similar analyses in the past using forensic audits.

"There are huge inequities in spending between some schools," says a school finance professor at Georgetown University. "There are some schools that are successful with less money, and there are some that are not. With this information, states and districts can tell school principals, 'You're expensive, but you're lagging compared to your peers.'"

Besides transparency and cost accountability, what does ESSA do?

Education Week put together a good analysis of how ESSA differs from No Child Left Behind, how the new law works, and what the major transition issues will be. Here are some highlights:

When ESSA was signed into law at the end of 2015, it rolled back a large part of the federal government's big role in education policy. Schools will now have a lot more freedom to decide how to resolve problems. Similar to No Child Left Behind, there are systems in place to hold states accountable for low-performing schools and require useful interventions.

New block grants totaling $1.6 billion will consolidate a number of programs, including education technology, counseling services, physical education and advanced placement courses. The Title I formula remains largely intact, but changes to Title II's teacher quality formula are expected to benefit rural districts. All schools are still required to maintain their existing funding levels in order to obtain federal funding. Schools receiving more than $30,000 in federal funding will be required to:

  • Spend 20 percent or more of the funding on an activity to help kids become more well-rounded
  • Spend 20 percent or more of the funding on keeping kids safe and healthy
  • Spend part of the funding on technology

Schools will still develop accountability goals and plans, and systems will be in place to make sure those plans are met. Low-performing schools will require intervention.

Standards can, but don't have to, comply with the Common Core State Standards, and the Secretary of Education is prohibited from encouraging states to choose Common Core or any other standard. Schools are required to choose a challenging curriculum.

And yes, standardized testing will play a big role under ESSA -- but not quite as big a role. Proficiency on state tests is one of four factors, and English-language proficiency is another. A third is another academic factor of the state's choice, such as improvement on state tests. The fourth factor must be quite different, but is still decided by the state's interests. It might be student or teacher engagement, post-secondary readiness or even school safety.

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