Congress: Enhance school finance transparency for brighter futures.

January 25, 2024
1 min read

As state legislative sessions open across the country, lawmakers are considering bills giving parents greater control over their children’s share of public school spending, following historic progress last year. But teachers unions and other opponents of education choice programs will likely leverage public misunderstanding about public school finances to oppose giving parents options beyond their children’s assigned public school. Correcting that misunderstanding should be a priority for school choice advocates in the new year. Recent polling by EdChoice makes clear the extent of public misunderstanding and the importance of showing parents how public schools are financed.

The poll indicates that Americans estimate that public schools spend about $5,000 per student, but the actual national average per-pupil expenditure is nearly three times as much: roughly $14,000. This discrepancy has an important implication for the school choice movement: Since state education savings accounts, tax credits, and scholarship programs generally provide parents with much less than that $14,000, improving the public’s understanding about what public schools actually spend could increase support for programs that offer parents new options.

In 2024, Congress has a role to play as well, by ensuring that the public gets timely and accurate information about public school spending. A new bill offers an opportunity to do just that. In December, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee approved a bipartisan bill to update the Education Sciences Reform Act, which authorizes federal education research and development and statistical collection activities. In particular, it would reform the way the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) collects and reports data.

Parents can’t make the best decisions for their kids without timely information about the schools around them, but the school finance data collected by the federal government are regularly years out of date. The Census Bureau’s annual survey of school system finances , and NCES’s reports on school finance data , are both two years out of date — 2021 data was only released last year. That means that even the most informed debates about K-12 education that depend on these data will be two years behind as well.

On the critical question of what public schools spend per student, federal law requires states to publish annual report cards with information about per-student spending by school. This reporting requirement, established in 2015, should provide NCES with sufficient information to publish timely, yearly estimates of per-student spending by state and district. Improving transparency about public school funding would help parents, the public and state policymakers evaluate public schools’ return on investment, and it would highlight the opportunity to improve children’s educations by giving parents direct control of school funding.

In 2024, the House Education Committee should take up the reauthorization of the Education Sciences Reform Act, require the Department of Education to publish more timely information, and enable a more informed public debate about how to improve American education.

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