Training School Leaders to Spend Wisely


Raise the main topic of education finance and most will jump to the revenue side from the equation: Can there be enough money? Are districts funded equitably? However the spending side is every bit important and gets shorter shrift. Parents and educators have not been asking, May be the district giving my school a good share of its money? And local leaders haven't asked what is purchased with that money and whether those purchases make the best use of the money. Area of the reason a lot a shorter period is allocated to the spending side of the equation is really a lack of visibility into the way the cash is spent. But that's going to change, thanks to a brand new provision within the Every Student Succeeds Act.

When school-level expenditure data are created public starting with the 2021-19 school year, many within the system will be caught off guard. District and school leaders are largely unprepared to interact around the problems that the new data will raise: equity, spending trade-offs, and the outcomes of money and school outcomes. [1]

Most have had little learning strategic school spending and how to do the most for students with scarce resources-a major missed opportunity. State boards of education are able to get the timely opportunity that financial transparency presents to show the tide on training of local leaders. The questions below shine a light around the pressing need to better support district and college leaders within their work on the spending side from the equation.

In general, local school boards do. Sure, some of that money involves districts with strings attached from federal or state sources. But the nation's roughly 14,000 local school boards typically own the fiduciary responsibility for spending the $650 billion at play in our system. The college board hires district leaders, who receive the cash in the district banking account and then stand to buy such things as teachers, counselors, school buses, and so forth. Those items then get divvied up among the district's schools according to local priorities, and the local school board approves those decisions by voting publicly around the budget every year. Some school boards deliberate carefully on those decisions; in other locales, board approval may amount to a rubber stamp on the district's financial documents.

But deciding how to spend the nation's education dollars is a tremendous responsibility. Sometimes those decisions go well and schools beat the chances on student outcomes. In other cases, they do not, and student outcomes lag. To be certain, those spending decisions could be intentional and strategic. But they can also stem from long-standing-and largely unexamined-policies and practices.

For instance, an area might save money on a single school since it has proportionately more senior teachers, who draw higher salaries. Or perhaps a STEM program or arts magnet might receive
extra staffing, which makes it more costly. These spending patterns are the responsibility of the local school boards, whether they are aware of them or otherwise.

To date, they have not had the school-level spending figures required to do this. However the new trove of school-level spending data will make it possible for anyone (including school board members) to connect each school's spending and outcomes.

When some schools' outcomes trail those of their peers, local leaders should expect questions regarding whether the straggling schools got shortchanged when district money was doled out, whether the money was spent on the wrong things, or whether something else is amiss. But school boards along with other district leaders tend to miss this critical step of connecting each school's outcomes with their district's own decisions about how much cash each school got as well as for what.

As the new financial data make it easier to size up spending decisions against outcomes each and every school, school boards can make these connections a routine a part of annual budget deliberations. When they achieve this, these boards can use what they learn how to make more strategic spending decisions.

The ESSA-required financial transparency may well put more demands on local school
boards. Community, advocacy groups, and the media will probably confront them about why the budgets they approved allocated dollars how they did. Facing public calls for fixes in their allocation practices and policies, local boards might have to develop some savvy allocation solutions.

State boards of education are able to ensure local leaders are very well equipped with the data and skills they need to do this critical focus on behalf of students. Some state boards, like those who work in Texas and Georgia, have a direct submit shaping local school board training and could make sure that this training gets district boards up to speed.

Not much at all. Most big-ticket decisions happen in the district level, so those at the school level have little or no involvement. Most principals haven't been contained in discussions by what things cost or concerning how to divvy up district funds affecting their buildings directly. Through my use principals from across the country, I have realized these school leaders often do not know how much cash is spent on behalf that belongs to them students-save for his or her flex budgets or supply funds.

But that's another missed opportunity. Research shows principals think they could get better outcomes for their students with the dollars they've if given the chance to do so. [2] Principals tend to know best what their students need and what is or isn't working to meet those needs. Where that is the case, it makes sense to engage principals in how resources are deployed in their schools so they can weigh in on needed changes. We often hear the argument that principals are extremely busy or lack the training and skills to dive in on spending questions. But as the leaders nearest students and staff, principals are uniquely positioned to help make school-level dollars do more.

And when the new school-by-school financial data emerge and thorny questions regarding equity and productivity start flying, principals in communities across the country could be on the front lines fielding them. Here again, training is required to make certain principals, similar to their school board colleagues, possess the financial literacy and skills they require.

Not often. I was struck in a panel on financial transparency whenever a Kentucky leader said his state was mostly of the to require annual financial training for local school boards. Kentucky requires three hours of school finance training every year for local board members with three years' experience or less. [3]

While some state boards directly shape requirements for district school boards, a 2012 National School Boards Association analysis showed just 15 states required any finance training for school board members. [4] And the little finance training local boards do get is commonly more about the timing of budgets and audits, compliance with federal grants, and financial conflicts of interest than concerning how to perform the most with public dollars with respect to students.

For district and college leaders, most training concentrates on instructional leadership. Whatever finance knowledge these leaders have tends to be grasped the task in their school systems. However they do not know what their school is spending or what to expect in return for those investments. And they have likely not been exposed to the array of strategic financial trade-offs made outside their local system or school. They have not been taught what financial metrics matter most. Nor could they be prone to know how their system stacks up with peers vis-à-vis performance and spending nor what allocations might help schools do more with the dollars available.

States haven't yet done a great job of intentionally training school board members, district leaders, and principals for financial leadership. That dearth of skill is hamstringing leaders who could well be making better-informed decisions for deploying money so they can help students the most.

I hope so. But realizing the chance hinges on leaders' abilities to interact on finance. Purchasing financial leadership training now seems a good move, with school boards, district leaders, and principals across the nation soon grappling with the tough equity issues that financial data transparency can be expected to come to light. A principal might be asked why she isn't obtaining the same outcomes like a school across town with similar per-pupil funding and demographics. Local board members, for their part, might be asked why they've given more income to 1 school over another.

But probably the most compelling argument for training is that this: States should grow their district leaders' capability to use financial data to drive spending decisions because that will yield the best benefits for college students.

Leaders have to know how to weigh spending trade-offs and model how policy and allocation decisions will affect equity and resource use. After many years of fielding training requests and never finding a go-to source for strategic training, I and my colleagues incorporated these elements into the Certificate of Education Finance program at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy.

But the need for training is vast. My hope would be that the effort at Georgetown can ignite similar initiatives and inform leadership and certification programs through the country. And also the time for training is ripe, with financial transparency poised to cast an increasingly bright light on finance and spending. Perhaps leaders in states that require no financial training for school board members will think better of this oversight. Providing financial practicing the people whose job would be to serve as financial stewards of $650 billion in public education dollars is really a no-brainer.

Training for district leaders and principals must go beyond compliance. Training must build their capacity to make smart, tactical decisions that wring the most from scarce dollars so that they can perform the most for students. State boards of education can do operator to ensure that training requirements and certification programs have established yourself. Doing so will send a strong signal that the state cares as much concerning the spending side from the equation because it will the revenue side.

1. Marguerite Roza, \”With New Data, School Finance Is Coming From the Ancient,\” EducationNext blog (April 11, 2021).

2. Lawrence J. Miller and Jane S. Lee, \”Policy Barriers to School Improvement: What's Real and What's Imagined?\” (Seattle: Center on Reinventing Public Education, 2021).

3. The Kentucky Board of Education is responsible for setting the standards and criteria for such training (702 KAR 1:115, Annual in-service training of district board members).

4. The nation's School Boards Association said hello does not make updated information on financial training requirements for school boards freely available.

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