Understanding school finance is one thing. Being effective in communicating about it is another skill entirely.
This blog is part of the series, Money Matters, exploring research on the role of school funding in advancing equitable opportunities and outcomes for all students and elevating evidence-based policy and practice solutions.
The topic of school finance is having a heyday. At least 36 governors discussed school funding in their 2019 State of the State addresses, with proposals for a range of educational investments. In many states and districts, teacher strikes have brought attention to education finance issues in the context of salaries, class sizes, and other resource decisions. Meanwhile, district and school leaders are preparing for the release of an unprecedented trove of school-by-school spending data, a requirement of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
For those who spend a lot of time thinking about the numbers, choosing the right words may not be a top priority. But it should be.
Most education leaders could do a lot better when it comes to talking effectively about education finance, especially if they hope to be convincing or inspire trust. Whether the topic is a state funding formula, a local tax levy, teacher salaries, or spending on athletics, emerging research spells out what works—and what doesn’t.
In 2018, researchers at Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab observed dozens of focus group and one-on-one interviews on finance matters conducted by Edge Research and HCM Strategies with school district leaders, principals, teachers, and parents. Like earlier interviews conducted by The Winston Group, these conversations went further than simply testing messages. They reveal a lot about what those in schools and the broader public know about school finance, and what they don’t. It’s very clear that there are some important knowledge gaps about how schools are funded and that many people are hungry to engage with the issue more fully.
We also found a clear need for leaders, from the state level to the school level, to cultivate greater transparency and to engender trust when talking about education funding, district budgets, and school spending—both within the education system and with the public.
Drawing from our insights on this collective research, below are some headliner do’s and don’ts intended to build understanding and inspire trust.
DO link the issue of finance to students.
This one seems obvious, but a cursory review of quotes made by education leaders about school finance suggests that too many emphasize things like financial sustainability, teacher retention, or investments in pre-k without linking the discussion directly to students. In fact, any quote that doesn’t specifically mention how students are affected is likely a missed opportunity. For example, it’s one thing to say: “We need to give teachers a raise because they deserve it.” It’s another thing to say: “We need to give our teachers a raise so we can recruit and hold onto the best talent possible because we know that’s what makes the difference for our students in the classroom.”
DO communicate with dollar amounts and acknowledge tradeoffs. But, avoid using business lingo.
Citing dollar amounts improves credibility, and offering real dollar tradeoffs helps stakeholders understand the constraints on the system, including the limits on what is possible with the total available resources, while assuring them that proposals for new funding are being carefully considered. Concerns about waste in school spending are widespread (even among teachers) and communicating in dollar terms can help assure audiences that you’ve thought through costs alongside value.
That said, when leaders use business jargon, audiences might not understand it and might worry that leaders are hiding something. Similarly, using terms like “efficiency” or “reallocation” suggests that the speaker thinks the students or staff are widgets and doesn’t fully appreciate that there are real humans at stake.
DO put any research in the local context.
Communities often distrust research that isn’t contextualized to local conditions. People want to know that changes in policy or investments are appropriate for their own districts or schools. For instance, an investment in early learning might be explained this way: “Research shows that preschool education is a good investment. And in our community, many children come to kindergarten unprepared for school. That’s why investing in pre-k spending makes sense for our students.”
DO offer the public and those inside the system a means to weigh in on financial decisions.
Teachers and parents participating in focus groups wanted to have a voice in resource allocation decisions, to engage in discussions of tradeoffs, and to offer their perspectives. Most of all, they care about transparency and the opportunity to participate.
Research suggests that if leaders’ invitation for public feedback is authentic, the leaders are perceived as more trustworthy and competent. Even if a decision has already been made, inviting feedback on how a change is playing out can go a long way toward maintaining confidence.
DO involve principals—either as messengers or in the message; they are the most trusted people in the education system.
Parents and even teachers who participated in the focus groups expressed general distrust around education finance, saying they think resources are being wasted on items that don’t lead directly to better student outcomes. They blame district and state leaders for this disconnect. But when financial messages are delivered by principals, parents and teachers react differently, saying that they trust their principals more on issues related to money because these leaders are more sensitive to their school’s needs. Given this trust, it makes sense to elevate principals’ voices on budget and finance communication and to authentically involve them in financial decision-making.
In fact, nearly every principal interviewed for this research expressed a desire to be more involved in budget issues. Some district leaders worry that principals may not stay “on message” when it comes to the district’s finances. If this does happen, perhaps it signals a moment to stop and listen, as principals are often in close communication with communities and may have important insights into resource decision-making. Districts should also consider investments that build the capacity of principals—as well as central office leaders—to understand and communicate about finances. In fact, we’ve incorporated this training into Georgetown’s Certificate in Education Finance and would like to see similar training in more leadership programs around the country.
The emerging messaging data, in tandem with ESSA’s per-pupil spending data by school, offers new opportunities for talking about money in education. The school-level spending data will likely surface some unexpected (and potentially troubling) patterns in states and school systems nationwide. This messaging research can better position school, district, and state leaders to effectively and transparently discuss school finance issues—and build much-needed trust and understanding in the process.
Marguerite Roza, Ph.D., is Director of the Edunomics Lab and Research Associate Professor at Georgetown University. Laura Anderson is Associate Director of the Edunomics Lab.