Robust research is a critical element of any state-level school finance reform effort. Yet in states across the country, public understanding of school funding systems is hindered by bad government data-sharing practices that too often reduce transparency and make it difficult to discern how dollars flow to districts.
Data on school finance systems are technically public, but are too often practically hidden in outdated, unusable, or incomplete formats — such as PDFs — or are only available upon request. In Bellwether’s work with advocates looking to understand their states’ school finance systems, securing the right data and getting it into a usable format is a weeks- or months-long process. Unless state policymakers act to ensure that comprehensive, timely school finance data is accessible to advocates, researchers, and the broader public, outdated and inequitable policies will continue to go unnoticed, limiting our ability to help students achieve their full potential in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Improving transparency around the flow of funds from taxpayers to schools should be a priority for policymakers in every state given its huge portion of the tax dollars they oversee. For state governments, K-12 education is usually the largest spending category in their general fund – approximately 34% in 2022. And across the more than 14,000 school districts across the country, local taxes for school operations and bonds for school facilities are perennial ballot box initiatives.
A topic as important as the funding of K-12 education deserves informed public engagement. So why do so few people understand how those dollars flow?
In most states, those who understand how education dollars flow may be limited to a few folks in the state department of education, a legislative research office, and on occasion, fastidious policy wonks. Those select few who do understand their state’s funding system and have a custodial role over the underlying data might have a preference to keep public data close, and not invite rigorous research, public engagement, and understanding on this topic. An example of this played out recently as the California State Department of Education attempted to end researchers’ access to data if they participated in lawsuits against the agency. Whether the intent behind the obfuscation of school finance data is benign or malign, both result in a less-informed public on the topic of school finance.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Policymakers should take several steps to reduce bureaucratic gatekeeping and make their school finance data more accessible. Every state reports finance data to the U.S. Census Bureau, but it only shows subtotals of how dollars are disbursed to districts. Federal law requires states to report on district and school expenditures but many states fail to provide equivalent visibility into the revenue that flows into those systems. Advocates, researchers, and the public deserve better information on the underlying calculations that are driving a significant portion of state and local tax dollars to districts.
The easiest first step for states to take is to ensure that all data driving school funding calculations are available online in a spreadsheet-based format. This information already lives in state databases, and it would be relatively straightforward to make that information accessible to the public. For example, Ohio has a complex funding formula but to its credit, the Ohio Department of Education provides accessible data through published Excel spreadsheets that include all of the information needed to replicate district funding calculations. It’s 2023 — state agencies have no excuse for reporting data of any kind via PDFs, especially data that drives school funding.
Next, states should ensure that there is clear documentation available to explain how funding is calculated for school districts. Those who are interested in learning about how school systems are funded shouldn’t need a law degree to interpret funding statutes. More states should follow Colorado’s lead with its clear documentation of how its school funding formula works.
Finally, states should ensure that school funding formulas are only as complex as they need to be to support students. Weighted student funding formulas can be powerful levers for transparency and equity in school funding. Over the long term, policymakers should revisit the structure of their state’s school funding system to consolidate funding streams where appropriate and strengthen elements that have a strong connection to student needs, such as weights for poverty, special education status, and English language learner designation.
These policy solutions are a step in the right direction toward greater governmental data transparency and accountability. It’s no secret that Americans are increasingly skeptical of major institutions. People tend to have higher levels of trust in state and local governments than the federal government, but there is a troubling trend brewing under the surface. The percentage of people who describe trust in their state’s government as “none at all” was stable in the single digits from the mid 1970s to the early 2000s but has since hit a record high of 19% in 2021 and 2022. Opacity in how school funding flows didn’t start that trend, but improving the transparency and accessibility of that data could be one small step toward rebuilding trust between policymakers and their constituents.