Associate professor Min Sun, assistant professor David Knight, and emeritus professor Margaret Plecki from the UW College of Education and assistant professor Christopher Candelaria from Vanderbilt University received a grant to study the impact of McCleary school financial reforms on disparities in education and the mechanisms through which SFRs reduce inequality. McCleary school finance reforms are the result of a Washington State Supreme Court ruling that substantially increased funding for K-12 basic education in the state. 

In 2018, legislation resulting from the McCleary decision led to an infusion of more than 7 billion dollars of state funding into the Washington school system. While many studies have shown that school finance reforms reduce inequality and improve outcomes for underserved students, the ways in which reforms are implemented and the effectiveness of SFRs varies across school districts. Little attention has been paid to the factors and mechanisms that determine the impact of SFRs. This project will study how districts make funding decisions in real-time and analyze the effectiveness of those decisions.

“Quantitative studies of school financial reforms consistently find that when there’s a huge increase in funding, we see outcomes improve,” Knight said. “But the problem is that these studies leave the mechanisms in a black box so we don’t know why outcomes improve. With this project, we work with district leaders to unpack  that question.”

The project will utilize administrative data on students, teachers, schools, and districts from the years 1996-97 to 2020-21, studying the impacts of McCleary legislative reforms and the pandemic on school resource allocation, teacher labor markets, and student learning outcomes. The team will also examine district budgets with a focus on how reforms have impacted teacher compensation over time.

The team is conducting case studies using four school districts in Washington state to study how different reform strategies impact the districts’ abilities to attract and retain teachers. The case study process will involve interviewing district and union leaders and collecting relevant documents like bargaining agreements and district budget documentation.

“Although McCleary was a full package of different policies regarding the funding formula, it’s often known for increasing teacher salaries in particular,” Candelaria said. “But districts ultimately get to decide how they spend those funds. Is it the case that they actually emphasized increasing teacher salaries or are they making other decisions?”

Interviewing decision makers allows for a fuller picture of how districts are implementing funding strategies. It will also be key to understanding how the pandemic has impacted resource allocation, another question that this project poses. Because low-income families and families of color are more likely to face financial challenges, technical difficulties, and other issues that affect remote learning, studying resource allocation and equity in schools is especially important now.

“While it was already a pressing issue prior to the pandemic whether McCleary increases state allocation of resources to low-resource districts, with those increasing demands on districts during pandemic, it’s more important than ever,” Sun said.

Because this project will study the mechanisms behind outcomes, the research team hopes that their work will inform equity-focused decision making as leaders are grappling with the McCleary reforms and the pandemic.

“The knowledge we gain from this project by not just looking at the impact, but also the mechanism of change . . . can really inform how these school financial reforms can be modified at the state and local level to further advance equity,” Sun said.

The funding for this project comes from the W.T. Grant Foundation, an organization committed to supporting high-quality research focused on reducing inequality in youth outcomes. The project team will provide updates about the progress of this project and publish working papers through the UW CoE’s Education Policy Analytics Lab website.

Story by Gabriela Tedeschi, marketing and communications student aide.

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