money matters

Colorado, a closer look at how your school spends tax dollars is coming Friday

A teacher reads to her students at the Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Coloradans will have a chance to better understand how the state’s public schools are spending tax dollars Friday when the state education department launches a new website that tracks annual financial data.

Commissioned by state lawmakers in 2014, the website reports how much money each school and district collects from federal, state and local taxes, and donations — including those given to charter schools.

The website also charts how each school spends the money on a long list of categories such as personnel, technology and food programs.

The site is the latest development in a multi-year effort to better explain Colorado’s complex school funding system and how schools use their tax dollars. Schools and districts have been required to publish budgets, credit card statements and check registers since 2010.

The new financial details and website put Colorado ahead of most states in school financial reporting.

All states will soon be required to submit school-level financial data to the federal government. The new and rarely discussed mandate is part of the nation’s education laws, which were updated in 2015 with the Every Student Succeed Act.

The financial data in Colorado — and soon across the nation — is a boon for civil rights and education activists who have long argued that poor communities are being short changed by wealthier white communities that have political clout.

“This level of information will show us how school boards divide up their mega budgets,” said Marguerite Roza, a research professor at Georgetown University who studies school finance policies. “And if it’s not equitable, then schools should be engaged in knowing that and speaking up on their behalf.”

Colorado is one of a few states that allocates more money for students with greater learning needs. However, inequities still exist in the state’s funding system.

Part of the inequity stems from mill levy overrides. Those are local voter-approved tax increases that wealthier school districts such as Cherry Creek and Boulder have little trouble passing.

But voters in school districts such as Greeley and Pueblo, which both serve large populations of poor students, have never approved such an increase.

One shortcoming of the site, Roza said, is the dearth of academic data.

Student data “should be paired with spending,” she said. “You can’t look at outcomes in the absence of costs and you can’t look at costs in the absence of outcomes.”

The legislation that established the new website did not call for academic data to be part of the website. State education department officials said they expect the website to continue to evolve after it becomes public.

One aspect of the site that could prove popular is a feature that allows side-by-side comparisons of how schools and districts spend their money. That worries some who work in education, however.

“It’s fun to do the comparisons,” said Diane Doney, chief financial officer for Littleton Public Schools, which helped the state test the website. “But I really think there is a danger when you start comparing raw numbers and try to make some sort of conclusion about what you’re seeing.”

Doney stressed caution in making comparisons for two reasons.

First, the website does not include student demographic information or other reasons why one school district might receive more money on a per student basis. Small rural school districts, for example, often receive twice the amount of money per student from the state that a large urban district receives.

Second, schools and districts allocate money in different ways. One school district might budget all of its reading coaches at the district level, while a nearby district might allocate that cost at the school level, Doney said.

Users of the website should call their school leader or district finance department if they have questions the website can’t answer, she said.

The website launches about three weeks before a group of lawmakers are scheduled to begin debating how the state should update its school funding system. Part of the conversation is expected to be whether Colorado is spending enough on its schools, or whether schools need to spend tax dollars differently.

Meanwhile, another coalition advocating for more money for schools is working on a potential 2018 ballot initiative.

“I do think the website will start the conversation that will be healthy for parents and constituents,” said Jennifer Okes, executive director of school finance at the Colorado Department of Education. “For the most part, schools are making really good use of their limited resources. This will show where they really are investing their dollars.”

On Friday, the site will contain financial information from the 2015-2016 school year. The site will be updated each year before July 1 with the preceding school year’s finances.

Investment strategy

Here are the initiatives Memphis’ education philanthropists will focus on in 2018

PHOTO: Matt Detrich/The Indianapolis Star
A charter leader from Indianapolis, Marcus Robinson is now CEO of the Memphis Education Fund, a philanthropic collaborative that invests in education improvement initiatives for Memphis schools.

A Memphis philanthropic group has shed its “Teacher Town” name but still plans to spend this year recruiting new teachers while also investing in growing the city’s single-site charter operators.

Unlike similar organizations in other cities across the country, the Memphis Education Fund plans to center its search locally — by helping local universities and groups prepare teachers for the challenges of urban education.

Originally called Teacher Town, the fund was created in 2014 by Memphis education leaders and local philanthropists with a goal of transforming Memphis into a destination city for talented teachers. That vision built on a major investment by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to improve teaching in the city.

In 2016, the group adopted a broader goal of improving all schools; brought in a new leader, Marcus Robinson, from Indianapolis; and joined Education Cities, a national collective of local groups seeking to reshape schools in their cities

In part inspired by changes that have taken place in Indianapolis, where Robinson had worked as a charter leader, Education Cities coordinates local groups advocating for the “portfolio model,” a vision in which cities have more charter schools and let district schools operate more like charters.

Robinson told Education Cities a year ago that his next step for Memphis would be “to unite everyone around a common set of operating principles, expectations, and evaluations to create a level playing field for each operator to perform optimally.” This appears to be in line with the portfolio vision, which aims to give all schools flexibility to operate as they see fit, while holding them equally accountability for results.

But instead of bringing the Shelby County Schools district and local charter operators closer together, 2017 saw them waging open competition for students.

For 2018, Robinson is tackling priorities that are not likely to inflame divisions. The fund will continue to focus on principal training, along with helping single-site charter organizations, boosting reading skills among the city’s youngest students, and recruiting new Memphis teachers.

“We’re hell-bent to fill classrooms with teachers,” said Robinson, pointing to elementary schools as having some of the greatest need.

Memphis will need an estimated 3,600 new teachers by 2020, said Lesley Brown, who directs how the fund invests its money to attract, develop and retain talent for local schools.

Rather than recruiting teachers from outside of Memphis, Teacher Town’s original focus, Robinson said the fund is strengthening partnerships with local universities and teacher preparation programs, such as one launched at Rhodes College in 2016 with the help of a $7 million gift from the fund.

The Memphis Education Fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including The Pyramid Peak Foundation and the Hyde Foundation. (Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

Robinson added that the fund also is ramping up its support for single-site charter operators, such as helping teachers implement new literacy curriculum at Memphis Delta Preparatory Charter School and STAR Academy Charter School.

“There’s less of an appetite for national charter organizations to move into Memphis,” he said. ”The next phase isn’t national CMOs (charter management organizations), but how do we encourage single-site schools to evolve.”

The group has doled out such grants to charters as part of a larger effort to boost student reading levels and develop teacher training for Core Knowledge Language Arts and KIPP Wheatley.

“Early literacy is a huge focus,” Robinson told Chalkbeat. “When we look at the test scores, early elementary scores are horrific. What’s the root? Access to quality literacy instruction.”

Paying for school

Sweeping study proposes major changes to the way schools are funded in Michigan

Michigan needs to change the way it funds education so that schools get more money for students who need extra attention — such as those who live in poverty and those who don’t yet have a strong command of the English language.

That’s the top recommendation from a prominent group of educators, policymakers, and business leaders who have been studying Michigan’s school funding system for much of the past two years.

While many states use a complex formula that gives schools more money if they serve children facing extra challenges, Michigan has long used a system that distributes the same amount of money for virtually all students, regardless of their needs.

The state provides some extra funding for students with disabilities — but not nearly enough, according to a state study last year that found schools across Michigan are getting $700 million less a year than they need to serve those students.

The study released Wednesday recommends a major restructuring so that schools would be fully funded for special education programs and would get extra funds to provide resources to students who need extra help. With that money, schools could offer lower class sizes, add counselors and social workers, and give teachers more support, the report says.

The study was conducted by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates on behalf of the Michigan School Finance Research Collaborative.

The collaborative — including top business and education leaders across the state — came together in 2016 after an earlier “school adequacy study” was largely ignored by political leaders.

The earlier study, which was funded by the state legislature, recommended that the state significantly increase the amount of money it sends to schools per student.

The collaborative hopes this new more robust study, which clocks in at more than 300 data-packed pages, will have a greater impact.

Since this study used multiple methods to determine the right funding level for schools, it will be more difficult to ignore, the group hopes.

The study — paid for with $843,000 from major foundations and 18 county school districts — included interviews with hundreds of educators, including district and charters school teachers. Those interviews helped researchers determine how much money schools need to more effectively do their jobs.

The study examined geographic cost differences in different parts of the state, labor cost differences, and other factors and determined that schools need approximately $9,590 each for students who don’t have special needs, including funds that would come from the state and federal governments.

The study recommends that schools get 35 percent more for students living in poverty, between 50 and 70 percent more for students who are learning English, 70 percent more for students with mild disabilities and 115 percent more for students with moderate disabilities.

Among other recommendations in the  report is that charter schools receive the same per-student funding as districts. Currently, the state’s funding system pays some districts more per student than others based largely on historic funding levels as opposed to current needs. Some districts — including most charter schools — are currently getting around $7,600 per child from the state while others get thousands of dollars more

It’s difficult to compare how much funding schools are getting now with the proposed $9,590 per student because schools get a mix state and federal dollars and the $9,590 doesn’t include things like transportation dollars.

The report suggests that the state use a new approach to student transportation in which transportation dollars are distributed differently, taking into account differences between urban and rural school districts.

The report did not put a price tag on the cost of implementing the recommendations and did not spell out how Michigan could come up with the extra money. But members of the collaborative said they hope lawmakers will consider the report as they make policy changes. 

“The issue here is not about whether you live in Farmington or whether you live in Ingham County, it’s about every child ought to have the opportunity to be successful and that ought to be our goal in Michigan,” said Randy Liepa, the Superintendent of Wayne County’s intermediate school district. “I don’t think there will be significant pushback on that.”

The findings were released Wednesday morning, with press conferences planned in Lansing, Grand Rapids, and in the Detroit area.

Read the full report here: