School Finance Data ‘Sucks.’ Rebecca Sibilia’s New Org is Offering $ to Fix It

New nonprofit to work with legislators, policymakers, journalists to bridge gap between research, policy.

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In the annals of education policy organizations, EdBuild was one-of-a-kind. A groundbreaking non-profit dedicated to advancing equity in education funding, it worked on a granular level, even hiring its own geographer to study subtle differences in funding across district lines. It did perhaps more than any other group to raise awareness nationwide to district-level inequities. 

As for its other mission — to work with state legislators to fix the problem — founder Rebecca Sibilia now admits that EdBuild did this “very, very poorly.” In 2020, after just five years, the group closed up shop. 

Sibilia, who previously worked on school finance with Washington, D.C., schools and for the education reform group StudentsFirst, remembers that at the time she and others at the organization decided that while they’d done much to raise consciousness about the problem, they lacked the tools to move the issue forward.

As it turns out, the move coincided with the COVID pandemic, which threw school budgets into chaos nationwide. If anything, the need for clear, actionable information on funding now is greater than ever. “One of the biggest things that has come from the COVID era is that we have realized how much the data sucks,” she said.

Policymakers “have been making guesses in the dark about how to fund our schools.”

So four years later, Sibilia is debuting a new venture, EdFund, which goes live today. She spoke this week with The 74’s Greg Toppo about the need for better funding research and dissemination — and a new model for collaborating not just with legislators and policymakers, but for underwriting researchers, journalists and others to help make sense of the data. Sibilia plans to issue EdFund’s first request for proposals shortly.

She expects to eventually have “many more proposals than what we have money to fund.” At the moment, the new organization has three main funders — the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the Peter and Carmen Lucia Buck Foundation — providing about $1.5 million annually. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity

The 74: Thinking about EdBuild, you focused so much on unequal funding. I wonder: What’s the evolution? What’s next?

Rebecca Sibilia: EdBuild was really constituted with two missions: The first was to raise national awareness around the problem, which we did pretty well. And the second was to work with legislatures to actually fix it, which we did very, very poorly. And so at the end of the five years, we were like, “I’m not sure there’s much else to tell. We’ve raised the collective consciousness on what the problem is with school funding in terms of local funds. But we certainly aren’t structured, we certainly don’t have the tools to move this forward. And so, we need to shut down.” That was why we shut down.  

Four years later, what’s your focus? 

We need much more policy-relevant research because for 60 years, we’ve been arguing about whether or not money matters, and it is the dumbest debate of all dumb questions that exist in the world. Because at the end of the day, states exist in a limited-resource environment. What we don’t need is an answer to an ethereal question about endless resources and what they’ll do for student achievement. What we need are answers to practical questions, like “Where should I put a marginal dollar when I have it?” Or, “What are the right tax policies that states should be setting around local dollars in order to create more equitable, but also adequately funded systems?”

“For 60 years, we’ve been arguing about whether or not money matters, and it is the dumbest debate of all dumb questions that exist in the world.”

This complete disconnect between research and policy has led us to a place where policymakers have been making guesses in the dark about how to fund our schools, and I frankly believe that’s one of the reasons why very few legislators actually understand their funding formula. There’s very little science behind it because we just haven’t provided that.

So who is your audience?

We’re trying to bridge the gap between research and policy. So we see our stakeholders as three groups, with two very different workstreams: the research community, advocates and journalists. I would love to be able to say that policymakers are the endgame on this, but really, advocates and journalists are the ones who are going to be able to interpret this work, and get the overall thrust of what is new and what it means for kids, into the hands of policymakers. I should also mention that we’re a 501(c)3 [nonprofit].

When you talked to The 74 in 2020, you said the next step wouldn’t be through a 501(c)3. It sounds like you’ve changed your mind.

I have not. I’m just not the one to do it. There is an organization that you may have heard of that recently started up with some seed money from the Gates Foundation called Brown’s Promise. They are at the Southern Education Foundation and they’re shaping up a litigation strategy for school district borders and school funding and integration. So they’re kind of pulling on both of those strings. I’ve given up on legislators actually making a fundamental change to the system. I really think that that’s going to happen through the courts. But in the meantime, the research has to inform what we’ve got in place right now, because that endgame in the courts is in 10, 15, 20 years.

Your “exit interview” with us happened right as COVID hit. And I wondered: What have the past four years done to this issue?

One of the biggest things that has come from the COVID era is that we have realized how much the data sucks. School finance data sucks. It sucks, it sucks. And it’s one of the biggest restrictions to good research in this field, and certainly timely research that could inform better decisions. We had a focus group of about 40 or so graduate and Phd students, and we asked them if they were studying school finance. They said, “No.” We asked them, “Which of these 10 factors would make you more likely to study school finance?” And 80% of them said, “Better data.” 

“One of the biggest things that has come from the COVID era is that we have realized how much the data sucks. School finance data sucks. It sucks, it sucks”

The second thing is that we’re understanding a lot more that school districts tend to invest in the things that do matter for raising student achievement, and that’s human capital. Whether it’s teachers, tutors, guidance counselors, etc. It’s human capital. This question of whether putting an additional dollar into a school district will raise student achievement —what Kirabo Jackson will tell you is, “Yes, just the dollar will.” What EricHanushek will tell you is, “Well, it depends on how it’s spent.” And the answer that we’ve learned through ESSER funds is that it tends to be spent on the people in the school, which means that everyone’s right. So those are kind of the two things that have come out of COVID.

Let’s go back to the first issue: How can you make the data suck less? Is this what your RFP is about?

Yes, in part. Let me go through the four C’s of who we are: We’re going to curate a policy-relevant research agenda. So instead of letting funders determine what they’re going to fund and making researchers chase that money, we’re instead going to go to policymakers and say, “What are the questions you’re going to have to grapple with in the next five years,” and then fund research to answer those questions. We’re going to curate a policy-relevant research agenda. That was the first thing we did. That’s why we’ve been quiet for the past six months.

The second thing we’re going to do is commission research against that policy agenda. That’s the RFP that we’re releasing this year. We hope to double the size of the investment next year and so on. And what you’ll see in the RFP is that we say: In some cases, we are flying so blind as it relates to school funding, that just putting together a data set will move the entire research field forward. So if students want to do this, if journalists want to do this, if policy organizations want to do this, in some cases collecting better data is just part of the solution. 


And then the third thing that we’re hoping to do is communicate the research that does exist and will come out of these RFPs in a way that it’s friendly for policy audiences — journalists and advocates primarily. We’re going to do so by white-labeling stuff. What we’re going to try to do is put together interactives and graphics and briefings and that sort of stuff, but it’ll all be available to advocates through an iframe [an embeddable element on a website], and they can just stick it straight on their website. Or we’ll have podcasts that someone can send to a policymaker to listen to. We’re really trying for this to become an opportunity for advocates to learn what the research says, and a way for advocates to actually incorporate that into their everyday work so that everything is just more grounded in research. 

“In some cases, we are flying so blind as it relates to school funding, that just putting together a data set will move the entire research field forward.”

Then the fourth is connect. I got a call just the other day: There is a state that we happen to have been linked to in the past that happens to be moving school funding reform this year. And they were like, “We need somebody who can come down and talk about this one element of our funding formula.” So we sent one of our board members down, because he is an economist and has studied the issue. He can talk about that and educate policymakers on what his research says. We’re hoping to do more of that — just make those direct connections.

I was struck by something you said a couple years ago. You singled out California, New York and New Jersey, arguably three of the most progressive states in the country, that have “the most shameful set of borders around schools.” And it really made me think that if they can’t budge on this issue, what hope do you have for anybody solving it?

The states where all of the school finance reform mojo is happening are in the South! Tennessee just overhauled their funding formula and went to a very progressive funding system. The Mississippi House just passed, 93-12, a very progressive funding system. The two co-chairs in Alabama have been talking about it — I wouldn’t be surprised to see them move in the next year or two.

It’s the southern states that are recognizing that the way they’re funding schools through these resource formulas just isn’t aligned with the science. This is one area where we actually can do some bootleg research and it can inform stuff. We used to say all the time at EdBuild that we need to move to a student-based funding formula for two reasons: One, different students have different needs. Two, when you think about how things work in the state capitol, you want advocates to be able to advocate for kids rather than themselves. And so in a resource-based formula, the people who are advocating in the capitol are the nurses association, the teachers association, the superintendents association, the principals. And the people in a weighted-student-formula environment who are lobbying in the capitol are special ed parents and English-language-learner communities and that sort of stuff. That’s really where you start to tilt the system in favor of kids instead of in favor of resources. 

It doesn’t sound like you’re abandoning the border fight. Taking a new approach maybe?

I’ve given up on borders changing through the legislature. The power dynamic just works against school districts that serve predominantly students of color.

I live in Maryland and we have county schools, which is not to say that they’re equal, but I live in a county that’s pretty diverse. I’d imagine somebody like you would say that’s a step in the right direction. Tell me where a place like Maryland sits in this discussion.

New Jersey has just over a million students, and they have over 600 school districts. Maryland has 850,000 kids, and they’ve got 24. That’s where Maryland fits in the conversation. So here’s the deal: What Maryland can do is they can take these enormous inequities in local funds and pool them because they’re sharing them across a much larger geography. The state has to do less to equalize because it’s equalizing at the local level first.

“The states where all of the school finance reform mojo is happening are in the South!”

In New Jersey, the state has an enormous burden to equalize because they have to fix things for the 550 school districts that aren’t the bastions of wealth in the state. We can either move to systems that look like Maryland — and I believe that has to happen through the courts — or, short of that, we can change funding formulas to make much more sense as it relates to the way that we’re funding schools. And that’s what we can do through legislatures, policymakers, researchers all talking.

O.K. This is becoming clear to me now.

You can headline it as, “Rebecca Sibilia has given up hope.” [Laughs.]

I’m going to assume that you’re going to be done in five years, because that’s the way you do everything. What would you consider success in 2029? 

You know Eric Lerum, right? He’s my ex-husband. And we’re still very good friends. We got engaged trying to change Tennessee’s funding formula 10 years ago. And we got it done last year. We started in 2016 to try to change Mississippi’s funding formula. And this year the House passed something. It takes a decade from the point that you start to educate the legislature and advocates and journalists about how their formula works and what research says for that to translate into policy. I believe that an organization can exist for five years and have a 15-year impact. We are seeing that bear out from the EdBuild time. 

One of the reasons we have these four distinct workstreams is because I think that several can be absorbed in different places. So maybe EdFund continues to run just as a funders’ collaborative. It just takes in money from foundations and puts it out for research, but the people who are curating the research agenda are the National Conference of State Legislatures. And the people who are communicating are at a specialized shop in the Urban Institute. And we’ve already created the bridges. Everyone’s talking and singing “Kumbaya,” so we don’t need to do the connecting anymore.

When you think about the construct of what EdFund could be, it could continue to exist past me. I could peace out and EdFund could continue to exist as it is, or we can start thinking about whether or not it makes more sense for these activities, once they have worked well together for a few years, to be absorbed in different places. Frankly, many other organizations out there in the education space could also afford to think about their work in the same respect.

I couldn’t let you go without asking you about this tweet from you at South by Southwest. Somebody took a picture of you talking to the Education Writers Association and you tweeted, “A bunch of journalists just created a better school funding formula than any current state model. How about them apples? Want more equitable funding? Elect your local reporter.” Thank you, by the way. We won’t take credit for that, but I wonder: Conceptually, is it a simple thing that we are just mucking up, or is it truly a complicated matter? 

There’s a part of every school funding formula called an expected local contribution. If you boil it all down, the state decides how much every school district needs to operate. They subtract out how much they think each community should raise, and then they give the rest. That’s what happens in every state. On the allocation side, people tend to understand how their state allocates: There’s a base amount and then there’s a weight for different kids, etc. That’s a policy that’s kind of easy to understand.

Ohio’s expected local contribution, I’m not kidding, goes for four pages, 12-point font, just in the mathematical equation alone. So if you’re a legislator and you’re looking at your state code and it’s 16 pages worth of, “Divide by, add two, regress four,” you’re just going to be like, “I give up.” But if you boil it down to, “Ohio uses a matrix that starts with the property wealth of every school district and gives a deduction for districts that have lower median household incomes,” I get that. What’s happened in school funding is that we’ve gotten so scared of the way it’s written because the code looks so scary.

It is scary, but we haven’t conveyed the concepts. Why haven’t we conveyed the concepts? Because research is what conveys concepts. And we haven’t had research to do it.

Disclosure: Walton Family Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provide financial support to EdBuild and The 74.

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