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ESSA requirements highlight importance and challenges of resource allocation reviews

This story originally appeared as "States Gird for Spending Reviews of Worst-Performing Districts" on EdWeek.com

Everyone agrees that to craft an effective budget—whether it's for your household or your school district—you have to know where you've spent your money.

The Every Student Succeeds Act enshrines that in federal law, requiring for the first time that each state conduct a top-to-bottom review of how its worst-performing districts deploy their money, staff, and time to support school improvement.

It's a nod to growing evidence that how districts spend their money can dramatically improve academic outcomes and recognition among district administrators that their spending patterns and staffing structures are incohesive and don't line up with their academic goals.

But there's widespread confusion and angst among state officials about how to conduct what ESSA calls resource-allocation reviews, according to those who work with state education agencies. The architects of ESSA used vague and clipped language (a mere 50 words) to describe the process, and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has yet to provide clarifying guidance as she's done with other components of the law.

Beyond that, district administrators historically have been cagey and defensive of their budgets, the aftermath of political infighting. A resource-allocation review by state department overlords could touch on areas like teacher-pay incentives, central-office costs, and spending on long-cherished (but ineffective) after-school programs. Resource-allocation reviews could be seen more like an audit rather than an opportunity to make crucial changes, experts warn.

Civil rights advocates fear that, in order to keep the peace, state departments will forgo doing a holistic review of districts' budgets and instead revert to simply making sure districts are spending state and federal school turnaround money—a sliver of their overall spending—as intended.

That sort of piecemeal fiscal oversight is the main reason why, many argue, the $7 billion in School Improvement Grants spent under the No Child Left Behind Act (ESSA's predecessor) had so little impact on district outcomes.

"Too often, our low-income students, black students, and Latino students are given fewer advanced-coursework opportunities, fewer supports they need to succeed, forced to rely more heavily on novice teachers. ... The list goes on," said Ary Amerikaner, the vice president for P-12 policy, practice, and research for the Education Trust, an advocacy group that pushes for heavy accountability and greater spending on low-income schools. "These patterns are all too common across our country. This is an opportunity to unearth those patterns and then make changes to address them."

Aligning Money, Goals

Forty-three percent of district administrators say their budgets don't line up with their academic goals, according to a recent Education Week survey.

That's hard to fix, they say, in part because spending data are often buried in outdated and hard-to-use software, making it virtually impossible to understand historical trends. And staffing and budgets are often an amalgamation of local, state, and federal priorities built up over decades and rolled over from one year to the next.

That is especially true in academically struggling districts where there's high turnover among administrative staff and a cacophony of district- and nonprofit-led school improvement and wraparound initiatives.

A resource-allocation review is seen as an important tool to address that problem. To conduct such a review, an outside organization typically interviews employees and analyzes years of budget books to get a detailed sense of how a central office staff's time, money, and expertise are deployed across the district.

The reviews vary in scope and depth. While the bulk of the analysis often deals with district spending, consultants can also look at where districts' most-effective and experienced teachers work, which employees participate in which professional-development programs, and at which schools gifted programs are offered.

Once administrators are presented with that type of information, the theory goes, they can spot duplicative or ineffective programs. They can cut costs, correct inequitable-spending patterns between low- and high-performing schools, and more effectively target new money toward proven initiatives and the students that need them the most.

"For generations, CFOs have been perceived as the ones focused on scorekeeping, ensuring efficient financial operations, and ensuring that we don't overspend," said Jonathan Travers, a partner with Education Resource Strategies, which has conducted resource-allocation reviews for the past 15 years. "The part of the role that's about enabling leadership to make good decisions about how funds are allocated and used wasn't there."

ESSA requires that states "periodically review resource allocation to support school improvement" in districts that serve a significant number of a state's worst-performing schools and in districts that have large and stagnant achievement gaps between student groups.

Travers said state departments are well-situated to conduct such reviews since they have access to district-level and statewide databases and can point out what's usual and unusual about underperforming districts' spending.

"Resource-allocation reviews are not the state telling the district how to spend their money," Travers said. "I think, if done well, it's the state giving districts a tool to think this through for themselves."

In their federally approved ESSA plans, most state departments said they will have a staff member or coach work with district employees to review their resources, spending, and outcomes. But most states said they'll determine later exactly what that process will look like. ESSA provides no guidelines for when reviews should be conducted.


Vague Language

The language of states' ESSA plans often mirrors the vague language in the law itself. Ohio's department, for example, said it will "identify inequities that affect student access to a well-rounded education."

Arkansas' department of education said in an e-mail that it would deploy two staff members to monitor how school improvement money is used in districts and provide face-to-face support for districts to "assure fidelity."

Because the school turnaround process under ESSA just started last year, no state has yet conducted a resource-allocation review, a spokeswoman for the Council of Chief State School Officers said.

A survey by the Center On Education Policy at George Washington University conducted in 2017 found that more than half the 45 states that responded said they don't have the staffing to conduct effective resource-allocation reviews for all qualifying districts.

Marguerite Roza, a finance researcher, advocate, and the director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, said departments she's consulted with are confused about who exactly is responsible for conducting resource-allocation reviews, what an effective resource-allocation review would look like, and whether departments should correct inequities and inefficiencies.

"There's a tricky relationship between state education departments and districts," said Roza, whose organization conducted a webinar for state officials on the topic in late August. A lot of states hear districts saying, " 'Why are you asking us that? What do you mean?' They're pretty hostile toward the process."

That sort of confusion and lack of guidance from the federal Department of Education has frustrated advocates like the Education Trust's Amerikaner. Her organization pushed federal lawmakers to require resource-allocation reviews under ESSA after a half century of wrangling between federal and state officials over the effective use of federal dollars for low-income children.

"The department is silent on this, and that usually means that states aren't taking it seriously," she said.

Although reshuffling resources within districts would be helpful, said David Knight, a school finance researcher at the University of Washington, chronically underperforming districts typically don't have enough money overall nor the qualified teaching staff to boost test scores. If states really wanted to help low-performing schools, he said, they would fix outdated and ineffective state funding formulas.

"You can't force districts to reallocate resources without giving them more resources," he said.

Meanwhile, there's a growing group of superintendents and CFOs who, even before ESSA's mandate, had become hooked on resource-allocation reviews, which they initiate on their own to get staff on board with dramatic changes. They describe the reviews as revealing, refreshing, and empowering.

"It's a good management practice," said Norwalk, Conn., Superintendent Steven Adamowski, who conducted resource-allocation reviews when he oversaw Cincinnati and Hartford, Conn., schools. Those reviews revealed inequitable spending between schools, scattershot and ineffective professional development, and unnecessarily high central-office costs, he said. "It allows you to overcome the inertia and institutional way we've always done business."

Read more recommendations for districts on ESSA compliance and resource allocation reviews.

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