Project Nickel: A new search engine to help parents learn what public schools spend

The 2019 film “Miss Virginia” was based on the life of Virginia Walden Ford, a leading advocate for parent empowerment who has fought for decades to create new educational opportunities for children and families.

In the 2019 feature film Miss Virginia,” a working mother in the nation’s capital struggles to help her teenage son escape a violent public school and leads a grassroots movement to rally parents to
demand new school choice options for their children. A turning point in the story occurs when Miss Virginia learns that D.C. public schools were spending more per child than the cost of tuition at her son’s private school. 

“When parents learn what their public schools are spending on their child’s education, they begin to ask questions,” explains parent activist Virginia Walden Ford, whose real-life story inspired the film. “They think about how those dollars might be put to better use. They start wanting more school choice options.” 

Thanks to Project Nickel, a new search engine created by Lincoln Studio in partnership with EdChoice, parents in most states can now learn exactly what their local public school spends on their child’s

Armed with this information (particularly after many public schools have been closed for long periods during the pandemic), parents across the United States may demand the power to use their child’s share of school funding to obtain a high-quality education. 

Project Nickel is made possible by the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, bipartisan legislation updating the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. ESSA requires that states report per-student spending by public schools to the federal government. The Department of Education recently has begun aggregating and publishing this data. 

To make this information more accessible to the public, Lincoln Studio partnered with EdChoice to develop a website. Project Nickel is a first-of-its-kind search engine of U.S. public school per-student spending data required to be reported to the U.S. Department of Education under a bipartisan 2015 law. Parents and anyone interested in what a public school spends per child can quickly get an answer by simply entering the school’s name. 

As of May 2021, Project Nickel presents data from each of the 37 states that have complied with federal law and reported spending data to the Department of Education, which has published the data. The remaining states and territories have not yet complied with the 2015 law to report information to the Department.

The search engine currently includes data from nearly 50,000 public schools across the United States and will be adding more schools as the Department publishes more data. 

New transparency about what public schools are spending has the potential to change how the public thinks about public education funding and the value students are receiving.  

Many Americans underestimate what public schools spend. Fifth-three percent of Americans think public school funding is too low in their state, according to a 2020 EdChoice survey. But most people
don’t understand what public schools actually spend.

The survey found that the median estimate was $5,000 per child. But that’s well below the lowest state’s average per-pupil expenditure. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the average per-pupil spending at public schools in 2017-18 was $13,800. This means that the average child who entered first grade in 2017 will likely have more than $160,000 spent on her education through high school.

Current per-pupil spending levels are likely to balloon in the coming years. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Congress has provided $190 billion in emergency funding for K-12 public education. According to Department of Education data, $63.3 billion of the $65.5 billion in federal funding awarded in 2020 remained available as of the end of February.

That means just 8% has been spent. Overall, state departments of education have an extra $120 billion in new federal emergency education funding still available.  

Virginia Walden Ford thinks this new transparency about school spending will be valuable for parents.

“I am so excited about Project Nickel and its potential to reach parents and give them additional information as they make decisions for their children’s education. The question of education spending ALWAYS comes up, especially after parents see the film,” Walden Ford explained.

A growing number of states across the country are enacting policies like education savings accounts to give parents direct control of education funding. Greater public awareness about what public schools are spending per child will start new conversations about whether students are receiving a high-quality education from that investment, particularly after prolonged closures in many districts during the pandemic. 

“Project Nickel’s search engine can help parents and everyone concerned about the quality of public education understand exactly what public schools are spending,” reasoned Virginia Walden Ford. “That’s a key step in building greater support for expanding parental choice in education and promoting equal opportunity.”