Are We Funding Our Schools Equitably?

[Ed. Note: The following is an exposition of the release of school-level data on spending in our public schools, by the incomparable Betsy Wolf, DCPS parent and education researcher. It was first posted on twitter and is reprinted here by permission of the author, who thanks DC education budget analysts Mary Levy and Will Perkins for help in parsing the data (which suggest that the answer to the question in the title above is a resounding “No”). Copyright 2020]

By Betsy Wolf

Today [June 26, 2020], OSSE [DC’s office of the state superintendent of education] released per pupil expenditures at the school level, which are supposed to include actual (not average) teacher salaries. Researchers have been waiting for years for these data. The data finally arrived, but they don’t answer the questions you want them to.

Basically, for the first time ever, each LEA [local education agency] had to break out all school-level expenditures and by share of state/local or federal funds, as well as report private funds at the LEA (not school) level.

LEAs were supposed to also break down the share of monies directly allocated to the school versus centralized money, but as each LEA got to do what it wanted per OSSE’s guidelines, we can’t parse the data by school versus central functions in any reliable way.

So what do these data show? Some might say they show we’re spending more per pupil in high-poverty schools. But no. Looking at unadjusted per-pupil expenditures doesn’t account for things like special education and services for English learners.

So we can’t determine whether we’re spending more in high-poverty schools BEYOND providing mandatory special education services, for example. In the words of Mary Levy, “these numbers will be used to say we are so generous to low-income schools, and it’s a lie.”

When we account for special education [SPED] and English learner [EL] services (using multiple linear regression and giving each school the average % SPED and EL), we see a different picture. We don’t clearly see at a system level higher investments in high-poverty schools.


What researchers really want to know from these data (which are not captured here) is the average teacher salary at each school. Districts have not been required until now to provide a school-level breakdown of teacher costs.

Why does this matter? Because experienced teachers may be inequitably distributed across schools and, presumably, you’d be able to see that in salaries.

Using different data from Mary Levy, we don’t see lower average teacher salaries in high-poverty schools. One reason for this is that DCPS provides performance pay for working in some high-poverty schools, so some teachers in those schools make more money even with less experience.


We also don’t see a pattern between average teacher salary and school-level poverty rate in charter schools, but teachers make a lot less money in DC charters than DCPS schools (on average).

Shifting gears, we DC researchers also tried to dive into the bucket of other (non-local, state, or federal) funds, but the data were too unreliable to look across schools or LEAs.

It looks like some charter schools receive a ton of private money, as well as other funds, but it’s also unclear what each LEA put into the “other” category. And as OSSE doesn’t verify the data, we don’t know what was or was not included.

Private donations were also “optional” for the “other” category. And teachers’ retirements should be in the “other” category for charters, but not for DCPS teachers because it’s a separate agency, making cross-sector comparisons impossible without other data.


Finally, the share of money broken down by local/state versus federal funds is a bit surprising, in that I would have expected to see greater allocations of federal funds in DCPS high-poverty versus low-poverty schools.


We see a slight increase in proportion of federal funds in higher poverty charter schools relative to lower poverty ones. But again, these data are verified only by the LEAs themselves.

In summary, this looks like a missed opportunity to provide fiscal transparency for DC schools. As Marguerite Roza states, “for those wanting a national picture of how money is spent inside every schools, the data will be unsatisfying.”


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