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Who is EdBuild and what is their purpose?

By Kate Royals

Mississippi Today

Since an announcement Tuesday from legislative leaders that they had hired a two-year-old New Jersey organization to re-evaluate Mississippi’s school funding formula, questions about the group have swirled.

Who is EdBuild? What is their motive? How are they funded?

The beginnings

The Jersey City, N.J.-based group EdBuild was founded in 2014 and is headed by longtime education player Rebecca Sibilia.

Before starting EdBuild, Sibilia worked with StudentsFirst, a group founded by Michelle Rhee when she left her post in late 2010 as chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public school system. StudentsFirst focused on reform efforts such as overhauling teacher tenure, tying teacher evaluation and compensation to student growth and advocating for charter schools and the competition they provide for public schools.

Sibilia said the majority of her work with StudentsFirst focused on working with states around funding issues.

“One of the things I realized through that time was there is an incredibly arbitrary and illogical policies related to state funding across the board … so that’s really what led me to start EdBuild,” she explained.

Since then, the group has produced studies on inequitable school funding around the nation, including a report showing neighboring districts with the biggest disparities in per pupil funding, median household income, property value and poverty rate.

For example, in Alabama, the Vestavia Hills school district has a median household income of more than $80,000 and a local revenue per student of $6,143. Next door in Birmingham, however, the median household income drops to around $31,000, and the local per pupil funding is nearly $2,000 less at $4,326. Almost half of the community lives in poverty.

EdBuild has examined each state’s school funding model, focusing on states’ base funding amount, how much local revenue districts depend on, and whether funding is differentiated based on certain student characteristics.

The group set a goal when it started: by 2020, four states will have passed funding formula reform and will have “moved to a weighted student funding system that prioritizes student need.” As of this week, three states, including Mississippi, are working with EdBuild toward that end.

Work in other states

EdBuild is currently working with Connecticut and Georgia. According to Sibilia, its work with Georgia is most comparable to what it expects to do with Mississippi.

“We worked directly with the (Georgia) governor’s staff to find out what the funding priorities were and then attended a number of subcommittee meetings of superintendents, legislators and business leaders and a diverse group of people who have a stake in the education system,” she described. “We really got a sense of what the priorities were from folks on the ground, and helped them design a funding formula that put more money into low-income schools and made special education much more logical.”

Sibilia said the subcommittee approved the formula and it will likely head to the Legislature in 2017.

Laura Hipp, a spokeswoman for Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, said the group’s “focus and experience simplifying school finance to meet student needs was a major component” in the state’s decision to work with EdBuild.

Hipp said the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, or MAEP, is “largely program based” and has resulted in high administrative costs.

“It has ignored actual student need. For example, more than half of the states fund students with special needs based on their disability and specific needs,” Hipp said. “Mississippi is one of only six states that funds program costs regardless of how severe a students’ disability may be.”

Sibilia said EdBuild supports funding formulas that give school districts flexibility. For example, instead of appropriating money to school districts specifically marked for school buses, the money is part of a larger pot that can be used by districts based on specific student needs.

“There are a lot of states moving to weighting for rural areas. So instead of providing transportation dollars that are earmarked only for transportation, you build weight into the funding formula that gets applied to each student enrolled in a sparse or small school district,” she explained. “Those funds can then be diverted to really anything that can help those students get to school, to help the school overcome lack of economies of scale and doesn’t build in an incentive to spend that money only on transportation.”

There’s no incentive, for example, for a district to create more efficient bus routes when a certain amount of money is guaranteed for transportation, she noted. The change in funding could lead school districts, if appropriate, to “consolidate bus patterns and also put some money towards getting better food for kids or whatever that may be. It’s about creating the kind of environment where that kind of innovation can happen,” she said.