On September 16, 2020, the U.S. Dept. of Education (USED) launched a new website that shows how much money each school spends per student. Available at https://oese.ed.gov/ppe/ – the website provides an interactive map that displays the per pupil expenditure (PPE) data required by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – the latest version of the Elementary & Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – on State and local report cards.

Many states on the USED map are missing PPE data, which states were required to start including in State and local report cards in the 2018-19 school year. The data may, however, be available on state dept. of ed websites.

This new requirement was intended to provide greater transparency to public school funding and allow parents and other interested parties to identify inequities across school districts and States.

However, as this Future Ed article, The Promise and Peril of ESSA School Spending Transparency, points out, school-level spending data is easily misinterpreted. Schools may receive greater funding because they enroll English language learners, special education students and others with learning needs that require additional resources. In fact, such schools could actually be receiving less funding.

It’s important to note that, unlike other student groups that need additional resources, students with disabilities are often placed in a school other than the school they would normally attend in order to provide specialized instruction. (These “placement” decisions are made by the student’s IEP team.) Thus, the PPE for a certain school may reflect spending on more special education students than would normally be attending that school.

But that’s just the beginning of why the PPE may be less than useful regarding special education. According to the USED guide, Opportunities and Responsibilities for State and Local Report Cards, released in September 2019, States have the discretion to allow LEAs to establish their own procedures for calculating per-pupil expenditures (see Q H-2). For example, one LEA may allocate special education expenditures to schools while other LEAs may keep all special education expenditures at the district level. Allowing LEAs to calculate PPE differently within a State essentially renders the data useless.

Information on how States calculate PPE, including whether all LEAs must follow the same calculation rules, should be available on the States’ department of education website, along with the annual report cards required by ESSA.

For example, this information from the Maine Dept. of Education clearly states that special education is not included in school level calculations while this information from the Wisconsin Dept. of Public Instruction clearly allows districts (LEAs) to pick and choose how they calculate PPE, including how they assign special education costs.

So, proceed with great caution when using the new PPE data!

MORE RESOURCES ON PPE:
Four Approaches to Assigning Costs to Central Levels vs. School Levels When Calculating Per-Pupil Expenditures (4 pgs, PDF)

ESSA Financial Reporting Requirement:
Three Action Steps to Build Equity
(1 pg, PDF)