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Exclusive — Exit Interview: EdBuild’s Rebecca Sibilia on America’s ‘Jacked Up’ School Funding System, Her Organization’s Successes and Failures & the Coming ‘Tsunami’ in Ed Finance

By Mark Keierleber | May 28, 2020

Courtesy WDAM

When Rebecca Sibilia founded the nonprofit EdBuild five years ago to combat the entrenched funding inequities in America’s schools, she had no clue what was coming.

Through a series of influential reports, her group exposed in vivid detail America’s uneven approach to education funding — and how “arbitrary” school district borders often serve to uphold these inequities. Time and again, researchers found, school district borders empowered wealthy communities to hoard scarce education resources in the name of “local control” while low-income children in poorly funded schools languished in inferior classrooms.

But that was before a pandemic upended America’s education system as we know it, with lawmakers weighing steep funding cuts to schools due to the virus-induced economic downturn.

Now, as the education community braces for a “tsunami like they’ve never seen before,” Sibilia said she’s unable to sit idle. In an exclusive interview with The 74, Sibilia announced her resignation as EdBuild’s CEO, effective Thursday. Her departure from EdBuild comes a month before the organization closes June 30.

In her view, the group was successful at elevating the conversation around the need to reform school funding formulas, which she described as being “jacked up.” But fixing the system is another story.

“In some ways, EdBuild is a story of failure,” she said. “The way we were trying to fix school funding at the local level was not the way that it works.”

Sometimes, she said, it takes multiple organizations to fix big problems.

“That’s part of why we’re shutting down,” she said. “We were very effective at showing the problems, but we don’t have the organizational system to fix them.”

But she has no intentions of giving up. Quite the opposite. As the education community braces for cuts, equitable school funding models are more important than ever, she said. Just this week, an EdBuild report found that the majority of K-12 students would have access to better-funded schools if education dollars were pooled at the county or state level and distributed to districts equally. The approach would also provide some shelter to low-income districts, which rely most on state aid at risk of cuts due to the pandemic.

Ahead of her departure, The 74 caught up with Sibilia to reflect on EdBuild’s work — and to discuss her plans to help state policymakers craft school funding models for the post-pandemic era.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: You founded EdBuild after working on school finance at the local government level in Washington, D.C., and for the education reform group StudentsFirst. What was your primary goal in creating a think tank devoted to school finance?

Sibilia: I started as the chief financial officer for a completely state-funded system, the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education. As a state-funded system, D.C. collects all of the property taxes along with other general-fund taxes, and they decide how much is going to go to education, and then they distribute it evenly based on a weighted student formula.

Then I went to StudentsFirst to talk about the need to reform how we spent money. My biggest lesson coming out of D.C. into StudentsFirst was that this discussion of inefficiencies and the best way to invest money is only possible when we’ve fixed the way that we’ve raised money and funded districts to begin with. You can’t compare who’s spending more on administration until everybody gets the same amount of money for the kids they’re educating.

I realized like, “Damn, the way we fund schools is just jacked up.”

I used to say when I first got to StudentsFirst that it’s not about how much money you have, it’s about how you spend it. What I didn’t understand is, “No, it is centrally about how much money you have.” My eyes were opened when I started looking at all of these other jacked-up state systems.

I believed that most people probably were operating under the same level of knowledge I was. We were just taking for granted that this system makes sense because it’s the system we inherited. I realized that just because we inherited the system does not mean that it makes sense.

Secondly, I truly did believe — and I think we’ve proven it at EdBuild — that many legislators have a good will and an earnest interest in making the way they fund schools more fair. But there is very little technical assistance or expertise to help states do that. And so the creation of EdBuild was really twofold. The first priority was, “Whoa, we need to talk about that.” And then also, “Whoa, there is such limited capacity in the field to help people who even want to fix it.”

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How did your approach evolve? It seems that you became a bit obsessed with school district borders. Was that obsession baked into the project, or was it something that developed over time?

No, it developed over time.

I was actually made smarter by the people we hired at the very beginning, who have stayed with us for the entire five years. That includes a geographer, Sara Hodges, who is now our director of data and visualizations. She was the first person who put a map of school districts in front of me and I was like, “What’s up with Camden?”

Hiring a geographer was the first thing that helped us to understand that the system is too fractured — unnecessarily fractured. And the more we looked at the map, the more that became very apparent.

That’s when we started really exploring what borders meant. The second person we hired was Zahava Stadler, the policy director, who brought this high level of knowledge on how local funds are raised, collected and kept within a school funding formula at the state level, and how well states are able to keep up with that wealth inequality.

Then we layered on top of that the idea that state funding systems are permitting this level of inequality because of local funds policies and aren’t making up for the difference. That’s when this entire conversation really started to come together about what was broken and why we’ve been so focused on borders.

EdBuild employees during a recent Zoom meeting. (Courtesy Rebecca Sibilia)

You’re based in New Jersey, which is home to some 550 school districts, even though the state is geographically small. How did your home state inform your perspective? 

I went to school in New Jersey, and I went to a regional system where towns came together and decided to pool their own money and run consolidated schools. The high school I graduated from had about 2,000 kids. If you told me when I was 18 that the average school district enrollment in New Jersey was less than that at my high school, I would have said, “You’re crazy.”

It wasn’t until EdBuild that I started to look at my home state differently. What’s been really disappointing to me — and I’m happy to say this very definitively now — is that the people of New Jersey believe themselves to be deeply progressive. Even if you were to ask the Republicans in New Jersey, they would still tell you that they’re much more progressive than conservatives in the South. I think New Yorkers would tell you the same thing. I think Californians would tell you the same thing. But those are the three states that have the most shameful set of borders.

It was certainly easy for us to pick on New York or New Jersey because that’s where we happen to exist, but we also pick on them because the school funding systems that they’re upholding run contrary to what the residents of these states say their political beliefs are.

EdBuild’s newest report, released Wednesday, found that most American students would attend better-funded schools if education funding were pooled at the county or state level and distributed to districts equally. It seems like EdBuild’s reports have been building up to this over the last five years. Was that the plan all along?

It was not the plan all along, and in fact we learned everything as we went. Almost every one of our reports came from us asking, “Why is that?” after looking at the last report. “Why are people seceding and creating their own school districts?”

Every time we issued a report, we would say, “Yeah, but what is driving that?” until it became so overwhelmingly obvious that conflating local control with local money was the thing that was driving the inequity.

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In one report, we looked at the most divisive borders in terms of both funding and race. We found 969 borders across the country that create 25-percentage-point divisions based on race and 25-percentage-point gaps in funding levels. That’s a really substantial difference between two neighbors, and we were shocked by how many borders create that substantial difference. Only 66 of those exist in the 11 states that have a county or a state-based funding system. In states that draw school districts along county or state lines, it became really obvious that something there is creating more cross-border equity.

Twenty-three billion dollars: That’s the national funding gap between predominantly white and predominantly nonwhite school districts. Only one of those 11 states that draw along county or state lines contributes to that gap. It’s Florida.

We may have been burying the lede on this as we went because we weren’t absolutely sure. But with every single one of these reports, we kept seeing what was plainly obvious: The broader the border, the greater the smoothing effect. And that makes sense. The more neighborhoods you incorporate, the more you’re able to smooth out wealth.

But the second thing that became clear is that state money doesn’t go far enough. If states are able to keep up with funding differences between districts, maybe we can all agree that we’re just going to exist with this inequitable system where we draw arbitrary borders and everyone gets to keep their super-local wealth.

In every single report, wealth inequality across borders wasn’t the only problem — but state money wasn’t doing enough to fix it. That was the “aha moment” for all of us.

Why not go all in and create a national school funding model?

We used to call it the galactic school funding model. We’d laugh about it at EdBuild. Here’s the reality: There is no national right to an education. People really do feel connected to the idea that education is a local thing. What we’re asking folks is to think about localism as just a little bigger than they now know it to be. We’re not asking them to look out for every kid in the country. We’re asking for them to look out for their neighbor.

Property taxes are inherently unequal. Some neighborhoods are clearly wealthier than others. Why not blow up that system? Why not look at alternatives to funding schools with property taxes?

I worry that people have heard our message about borders and have conflated it into believing we’re saying that property taxes are bad. We do not think that property taxes are bad. In fact, I believe that property taxes are the best way to fund schools because they are the most stable.

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If there’s anything in our democracy that we want to ensure is most stable and most guaranteed, it is education. Aligning our most important public services with our most stable way of funding them is intellectually the right way to go about things.

The problem is the locally raised, locally governed part of that. What we know about the United States is not everybody lives in equal communities. When you’re drawing your money off of property wealth, you have to assume that we’re never going to get to a place where everyone lives in an equal community. If we agree that not everybody lives in an equal community, then it makes no sense that we wouldn’t have a system that equalizes education resources across those communities.

Why close EdBuild after five years? It seems unusual for an organization to set an expiration date.

When you are a 501(c)3 nonprofit educational organization, you are only as sustainable as long as you keep the interest of your funders, and I’m happy to say that funders tend to be very fickle. They want to see some level of proven efficacy.

When we started EdBuild, we said to all of our funders, “Give us five years, and we’re going to work really hard to change formulas in four states. If we don’t do that, then there’s something fundamentally wrong with our model.”

In some ways, EdBuild is a story of failure. The way we were trying to fix school funding at the local level was not the way that it works.

In raising national awareness about what’s broken, it’s undeniable that EdBuild was a success. But it’s incredibly difficult to set metrics for how deeply we permeated the public’s conscience. That’s something you can only feel, and so it was something that we could never build into grant agreements with our funders.

We always had a five-year plan.

We have been very effective in raising awareness around what is driving some discriminatory behavior and the unfair outcomes in the way we’re funding schools. But we have not been successful at actually getting in and changing those policies.

It became very clear that there needs to be advocacy around this issue that can only be done through electoral and 501(c)4 social welfare efforts. You need an organization that is structured to inherently blow up the system so that you can rebuild it. That’s just not what EdBuild was nor what we want it to be.

You’ve certainly had success in making school finance and district borders a topic of public interest. You’ve generated national headlines, and your research findings were cited in numerous Democratic presidential candidates’ education platforms. What do you view as your biggest success?

One of our biggest successes was our engagement in Mississippi, where we were hired to study the state’s education funding formula. Our work there also perfectly encapsulates the decision we’re making to sunset.

We were invited in by a state legislature that was politically polarized at the time, and so our reputation became very politically polarizing there, too. Because we entered in such a polarizing way, it generated enough attention for people to actually tune in when we started to identify problems with the legacy system.

We went to the state, we demonstrated pretty clearly the flaws in their funding formula, and we proposed a solution. Getting a progressive funding formula passed through the House of Representatives in Mississippi alone was a success.

Ultimately, that solution wasn’t adopted by the state senate, but now folks on the ground have a much clearer view of what’s warping equity in the state — and they’re better positioned to solve it. It’s only right for us to step aside and allow those who are better positioned to propose local solutions to the problems that we’ve brought to light.

Sometimes it takes one organization to show all of the problems, and a different organization to come in and fix them. That’s part of why we’re shutting down. We were very effective at showing the problems, but we don’t have the organizational system to fix them.

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Am I sensing a bit of foreshadowing? What’s next for you?

There is definitely a little bit of foreshadowing there. Here’s what I know is definitively next for me: We need to support people on the ground who have been working in education advocacy for years and are about to see a tsunami like they’ve never seen before.

There needs to be capacity to help people who are advocates, particularly for low-income and nonwhite kids, to figure out how to take the cuts we know are coming in a way that’s going to be least detrimental. So there’s an immediate imperative that’s going to drive what I do next, which is to help people in the states figure out how to buffer the tsunami that’s coming.

Long term, we need a completely different system if we actually are going to go about making this kind of change at the 50-state level. That system needs to be unapologetic, and it needs to be bipartisan.

There needs to be a national advocacy push around changing school funding that is bigger and much more political than EdBuild ever could have been. Are we in an economy right now where that’s even a possibility? No. But is that a long-term need in order to take EdBuild’s work and move it to the next level? Absolutely.

We’re not going to do this with a 501(c)3, bureaucratic organization. The change is going to come in something that is much more rooted in local advocates who have been there working on these issues for years.

Are you going to create a lobbying group, then?

Our latest report very much foreshadows what I’m going to do next, which is to pivot very quickly from what we’ve learned is the problem to, “How do we solve those problems at the state level amid the biggest crisis that we will see in our modern era?” There is no time to create a new organization. There is no time to figure out our ultimate pie-in-the-sky recipe for changing school funding formulas. We are going to be changing school funding formulas. They are changing today.

That is what people should expect to see from me. As I step down from the day-to-day management of EdBuild, I’ll pivot toward “How can I take what we’ve learned and help local advocates figure out the solutions to what’s changing in front of them right now?”

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