(2024) Annual Public School System Strategic Plan Scan

Executive Summary

Strategic planning is one of the more popular management approaches in organizations, consistently ranked among the five most popular managerial approaches worldwide1. Public school systems have the power to authentically engage communities and stakeholders in the development of strategic plans. The purpose is to collectively construct organizational plans to achieve a high quality educational experience for children.

Given the time and money school districts spend on these efforts, we set out to scan their strategic plans across the United States, reviewing both urban and rural settings, to understand commonalities and differences in these plans. This brief summarizes the key categories currently emphasized in district strategic plans and offers three promising trends to that may strengthen implementation: (1) the increased engagement of families and community in the planning process; (2) the inclusion of pandemic-era strategies (e.g., social and emotional
learning, maximizing out of school time; and (3) the need for increased school principal engagement in implementation.

Overview of the Report

The purpose of this report is to track and organize the high-level aims of public education strategic plans. According to AASA, the School Superintendents Association, educators believe in the power of plans and are devoted to district strategic planning. To understand this ambition further, we conducted a qualitative Iterative Analysis of Strategic Plans, examining publicly available strategic plans, organizational charts, learning standards and other publicly available guidance documents found on school district (local education agency or LEA) websites. This scan centered on investigating the following questions:

  1. What themes and patterns exist regarding funding priorities across city and rural districts strategic planning priorities?
  2. What notable similarities and differences exist between city and rural LEAs’ strategic plans regarding their funding priorities?
  3. What novel or innovative approaches appear in urban and rural LEAs’ strategic plans?

The scan identified prominent categories and themes that emerged in these plans across the United States today. Our broader goal is to annually examine the development of new plans and adaptations of existing plans, particularly in the post-pandemic context.

To analyze the content of the plans we used the “SCIP” categories for organization and review purposes: Systems, Culture, Instruction, and People. A deeper description of SCIP is found below.

Key Findings

Research Question 1: What themes and patterns exist regarding funding priorities across city and rural LEAs’ strategic planning priorities?


Theme 1.1: City and rural districts indicated similar priorities in strategic planning
● The percentages of total codes for each SCIP component for city and rural districts were within no more than 2 percentage points;
● Communication practices are an area of focus that consistently appear across city and rural strategic plans


Theme 1.2: Data strongly shows increased communication, collaboration, and transparency with parents and the local community are high priorities nationwide
● 80% of strategic plans (90% of rural; 73% of city) reference more collaboration in the community at least once
● 75% of strategic plans ( 75% of rural; 65% of city) reference more collaboration and/or transparency with parents
● While there is a great enthusiasm for increased communications, relatively few plans propose a system for achieving it.


Theme 1.3: Social-emotional learning (SEL) appears most frequently as a strategy for addressing culture and/or instruction across all strategic plans
● 22% of strategic plans (21% of rural; 23% of city) reference SEL as a strategy for addressing culture and instruction both in-school and during out-of-school time
● The term ‘Whole child’ in reference to strategies for culture and instruction appeared in 14% of city districts 


Research Question 2: What notable similarities and differences exist between city and rural LEAs’ strategic plans regarding their funding priorities?


Theme 2.1: Rural LEAs less likely to use the term ‘equity’
● 48% of strategic plans use the term ‘equity’ in their strategic plan, with 60% of city LEAs and 33% or rural LEAs

● City LEA strategic plans were observed to most commonly tie the term ‘equity’ to identity and belonging, while rural LEAs more commonly use ‘equity’ to reference the allocation of instructional resources and labor.


Theme 2.2: Strategic plans may be less common in rural LEAs, but a high number of rural districts were identified to be starting or partway through the strategic planning process for the first time. Like their urban counterparts, rural districts were required to prepare and present pandemic relief plans, might be converting to district wide implementation plans
● The researcher had an unexpectedly difficult time locating rural LEAs that have a current or recent strategic plan, while publicly available strategic plans are far more common with city LEAs.
● In nearly every state, the research did find a rural LEA that are currently in a 1-2 year strategic planning process


Research Question 3: What novel or innovative approaches appear in LEAs’ strategic plans?


Theme 3.1: Equity is embedded in systems-, culture-, instructional-, and people-based strategies

● Strategies for equity were frequently integrated into all four SCIP components

● Though rural LEAs were observed to use the term ‘equity’ less frequently, they use known equitable strategies while avoiding mentioning race (e.g. a commitment to hiring educators who have similar life experiences to students)


Theme 3.2: Communication as an Equity Strategy

● The majority of identified communication strategies across all strategic plans implicitly or explicitly address educational equity.

● Large number of strategic plans across both rural and city LEAs are emphasizing communication practices in response to explicit feedback from parents during the strategic planning process.


Theme 3.3: Maximizing OST
● There is growing momentum for maximizing out-of-school time for enrichment and whole child development.
● 20% of the reviewed strategic plans (25% city; 15% rural) referenced the term ‘afterschool,’ ‘after-school,’ or ‘after school’ as part of their strategic priorities. An additional 4% of reviewed strategic plans (all from city districts) referenced the term ‘out of school time,’ out-of-sch

Local Education Agency Selection

The process for selecting LEAs to include in this study was based on the National Center for Educational Statistics’ (NCES) locale classifications. Below are the processes for selecting one city district and one rural district from each state to include in the scan (100 total):

Selecting City LEAs

The research team obtained the latest strategic plan from a Local Education Agency (LEA) in each state that serves a large city population with the highest number of students. If the identified LEA did not have a publicly available strategic plan, the researchers used the strategic plan from the large urban LEA with the next highest student population. If no LEA primarily serves students in areas that meet the NCES’s definition of a large city, the LEA with the highest student population serving students in a designated ‘midsize city’ was selected.

Selecting Rural LEAs

The research team used the National Center for Education Research’s Locale Look-up tool to select a rural Local Education Agency (LEA) in each state to include in the study. The selected LEAs met two criteria: all their schools are in areas defined as remote rural by the NCES and they have a publicly available current or recently completed strategic plan. If no LEA meeting both criteria could be found, then researchers chose an LEA that includes areas classified as distant rural, fringe rural, and remote town

Investment = intention to do something (themes, goals, aims)
Research Design

LEA Selection Process

The process for selecting LEAs to include in this study was based on the National Center for Educational Statistics’ (NCES) locale classifications. Below are the processes for selecting one city district and one rural district from each state to collect a strategic plan from (100 total).

  • Selecting City LEAs
    • Researchers collected the most recent strategic plan from an LEA in each state that primarily serves a large city population LEA with the highest student population in each state. If the identified LEA does not have a publicly available strategic plan, then the strategic plan from the large urban LEA with the next largest student population was used.

Coding Procedure

Two coders (Coder 1 & Coder 2) reviewed 50 strategic plans each, counting instances of stated priorities in a strategic plan aligned with the four components of the SCIP framework. Additionally, Coder 2 did a second coding of 20 strategic plans from Coder 1’s batch to create a comparison sample. Analysis of the overlapping sample showed the two coders had 96% agreement, indicating that they had an aligned and consistent understanding of the SCIP framework and how it appears in strategic plans.


In addition to the descriptive statistics produced from coding with the SCIP framework, the research team analyzed the strategic using iterative thematic inquiry. This analysis method privileges a pragmatic lens by aiming to identify themes with the most practical implications. We recommend future analysis include a further refinement of the strategic plan data set and a more detailed definition of ‘strategic plan’ informed by our findings from this scan. Future scans will include a coding system expanded to include ‘look-fors’ and specific examples for each component, based on feedback from strategic plan managers in LEA settings.

Results of SCIP Coding

Overall, SCIP is a comprehensive framework that shows up across each of the plans we scanned.

There is a high match of this framework when comparing urban and rural systems. Both groups have a high categorical match. They were identical in the prioritization of Instruction in their respective plans.

Of the four SCIP categories, 79 of the 100 LEAs have three or more categories represented. The highest representation is in Instruction, and the second-highest representation is in Culture, signaling that learning recovery and barriers to learning remain prime concerns for schools, school systems, and communities. People was noticeably the lowest represented category, despite the dramatic national outcry for a skilled instructional workforce. To understand this further, a national survey of strategic plan managers, etc.

Key Takeaways

Local school districts serve as the drivers of strategic plans, reflecting emerging trends in the public education landscape. Understanding the commonalities and differences in funding priorities, identifying innovative approaches, and tracking the evolving educational aspirations landscape is critical for anticipating future policy and practice needs in both urban and rural school settings.

Similar Priorities:

  • Both city and rural districts demonstrated comparable priorities in strategic planning with minor variations.

Communication Focus:

  • Communication practices emerged as a consistent priority, indicating increased collaboration and transparency with parents and the local community.

Maximizing High-Quality OST:

  • Leveraging after-school programs is widely recognized as a key opportunity to offer enrichment, development, and purpose to students.

Notable Similarities and Differences Between City and Rural LEAs:

  • Equity Terminology:
    • The term ‘equity’ was less commonly used in rural strategic plans compared to city plans. City plans tied ‘equity’ to identity and belonging, while rural plans linked it more often to resource allocation.

Public school systems actively engage in strategic planning, aligning their efforts with overarching goals of educational excellence, equity, and innovation. The findings underscore the importance of communication, collaboration, and transparency in strategic planning, as well as the ongoing adaptation of these plans in response to evolving educational contexts, particularly post-pandemic challenges and societal shifts. The report recommends ongoing monitoring and examination of new plans to ensure responsiveness to changing needs in public education.


In this first-generation scan, it is observed that public school systems are effectively using strategic planning to enhance the quality of education for children. Engaging communities and stakeholders in the development of strategic plans is a crucial step in ensuring that the plans reflect the diverse needs and perspectives of the local population. The following recommendations are made for future planning and monitoring:

  1. Increased Engagement of Families and Community:

    • Recognize the importance of collaboration between schools and the broader community.
    • Involve families and community members in the planning process to ensure educational goals align with local values and expectations.
    • Foster a sense of ownership and support for the school system.
  2. Inclusion of Pandemic-era Strategies with Strong LOI (Learning Outcome Impact):

    • Incorporate strategies that address the unique needs of students and educators during pandemic times.
    • Prioritize social and emotional learning to reflect an understanding of the holistic development of students.
    • Maximize out-of-school time, acknowledging the need for flexible learning approaches beyond traditional classroom settings.
  3. Increased School Principal Engagement in Implementation:

    • Recognize the crucial role of school principals in translating strategic plans into actionable steps at the school level.
    • Increase engagement of principals in the implementation phase to ensure effective execution of strategies and alignment with overall district goals.
    • Principals serve as key leaders who can inspire teachers and students to work towards the objectives outlined in the strategic plan.

A strong education strategic plan can catalyze communities, reflecting a clear vision for the future of education and student success, emphasizing innovative practices and school-based leadership opportunities. It is recommended to conduct a broader, annual scan that considers both urban and rural settings to identify commonalities and differences, contributing to the improvement of education systems nationwide. This ongoing analysis will help education leaders adapt and refine strategic plans to meet the evolving needs of students and communities.

Budget Preparation

Americans Gain an Average of Eight Pounds Over the Holidays Each Year. Before you switch over to a fad diet, consider a bigger weight loss goal: $122 billion. Since the beginning of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) we have been warning that when FY24 arrived Executive Leadership Teams would need to be ready to shed initiatives they can’t sustain and report on their Return on Investment (ROI). Teams also need to maintain those initiatives that produced Learning on Investment (LOI).

As we travel the country, we’ve been increasingly worried that Superintendents and Boards are waiting too long to confront the upcoming fiscal cliff. The reporting season is here as the US Department of Education just released financial reporting dates as early as March 2024 for all states. Chief Financial Officers and Grants Administration leaders have been patching budgets with one-time fixes as school returned from pandemic disruptions. Year-to-year, short-term solutions are not only avoiding hard decisions about the loss of ESSER funds but, we’d argue, are masking deeper, longer-term crises such as declining student enrollment, a educator workforce that is too large to sustain, and instructional offerings that are too diffuse to close learning gaps. It’s like taking on a fad diet, rather than making the necessary lifestyle changes.

Like getting to a healthy and sustainable weight, you’ll need to adjust both your intake and your level of activity. This starts with communicating a compelling vision of success shared with a wide range of stakeholders will ensure better results, more satisfied families and educators, and predictable fiscal planning.

Measuring Investment

ROI is a financial metric used to evaluate the profitability or efficiency of an investment relative to its cost. ROI is measured by dividing a company’s net profit by its initial investment and then multiplying the result by 100 to express the ratio as a percentage. But how to measure learning on investment (LOI)?

An LOI measure divides net student learning gains by the investment needed to generate that gain. This is a versatile process that can be applied to various scenarios, such as evaluating the performance of academic interventions, assessing the effectiveness of training programs, or comparing curricula. It guides decision-makers as they allocate resources effectively and informs choices about where to invest time, money, and effort. It also identifies initiatives that need to be strategically shed to make room for fresh approaches based on the current needs of students, families, and our workforce.

The Fundamental Challenge of Public Services

‘Public services’ – road maintenance, public safety, and K-12 education, for example – don’t have a ‘profit motive’. That absence makes it challenging but not impossible to measure the effectiveness of a public service. Historically, a particular public service will expand in scale or scope in response to political pressure and will be reduced or constrained when resources (usually tax dollars) are limited.

This push-pull dynamic can be seen as back-and-forth between resilience and efficiency. Resiliency in this context is the ability to respond quickly to things that aren’t predictable, such as an influx of multi-language students or post-pandemic student learning loss. Efficiency is simply getting the ‘most bang for the buck’ in the most expedient ways.

There’s a negative correlation between resilience and efficiency: when one goes up, the other goes down. Think of restaurants: they plan for efficiency, but customer volume is unpredictable and some diners want to change what’s on the menu. School systems are facing similar changes with volume (enrollments) and modifications (requests for new services such as intervention and student well-being). That’s the challenge presented by the fiscal cliff.

ESSER was intended to improve the resiliency of K-12 operations, providing for 1-to-1 technology, increased staffing, facility upgrades, and innovative methods and materials. The narrative of ESSER’s expiration is: “We gave you additional resources to help you through the pandemic and return to school. These resources improved your resilience but reduced your efficiency. That’s not sustainable. Now we need you to continue moving toward a ‘new normal’ by improving your efficiency and to do that, we need to reduce your resilience.”

This Superintendent’s Challenge

While CFOs and Federal Programs Directors have done a good job guiding districts through the last 3 years of budget-tailoring, now it’s time for Superintendents, Cabinet members, and Board members to take a longer-term, strategic approach to ensure that only the most effective strategies – those with the strongest LOI – are retained as resilience is drained from the system.

Researchers of corporate governance refer to this as “repositioning the core” of the business. LOI is not as clear cut as ROI. Superintendents are subjected to more public scrutiny and political pressure than corporate CEOs. As such, it’s important to design a comprehensive decision-making model, maximize appropriate stakeholder engagement, push for data-driven decisions, prioritize equity, and communicate a clear and compelling vision of the future emphasizing the investment, not the reductions. This will test even the most experienced Superintendents. In our next issue, we will offer practical, actionable ideas on how to get this done. But, before you stop eating all carbs, push your team to show the data wins for each initiative. It will become very clear quickly: if you can’t put it on a scale, it’s going to derail the weight-loss.

We are getting ready for two seasons: holiday season and budget season. In both instances, Superintendents, Cabinet members, and Board members can take time to reflect on what has worked in the immediate past and what needs to get adjusted. The final fiscal year of ESSER invites us to do this by crafting a compelling vision for well-resourced schools with improved efficiencies. There are some predictable trends in this invitation to adjust, based on our results and system’s response to the influx of these resources.

More often than not, when the K-12 system gets additional funding it responds by spending that money on labor: new positions, new support roles, and increased compensation (including, as we saw, retention bonuses). We see this investment show up across school district strategic plans. In 2023, we conducted a national scan of large urban school districts and found labor initiatives as second only to instructional interventions in over 80% of these plans. As pressure increases, districts also put funds into “promising practices” or innovative approaches intended to make things easier or improve performance. During the pandemic, these practices included facilities upgrades, new technologies, social and emotional learning activities, and high-quality instructional materials. Each of these expenditures need to be tested using the Learning on Investment (LOI) measure.

We offer these suggestions, based on our work with dozens of states and school systems.

  • Map Wins – Rigorously assess the LOI of each ESSER expenditure. In most districts these include new interventionist positions, enhanced after-school and summer school offerings, increased student support, and the scaling of instructional technology. Find sustainable funds for those with a high LOI and ‘strategically abandon’ those with low LOI. As strong innovative practices get institutionalized (e.g., science of reading, instructional technology), intentionally reduce the high initial costs of innovation and launch such as training and equipment purchases.
  • Go Lean – Step back and take a hard look at ongoing – and often redundant – costs you’ve built into your budget as various assessment and information systems have been adopted. Just as cable and cell phone plans take up an increasing percentage of our personal budgets these annual costs often receive too little scrutiny in district budgeting. (Note: These redundancies create other ‘costs.’ For example, duplicative assessment and reporting practices take time away from student learning and burden staff.) These cost savings can fund some of the high-LOI activities originally funded through ESSER.
  • Rethink Walls- No doubt the hardest and longest conversations will be about the size of your educator workforce. Nearly every district and school has unfilled teacher and paraprofessional positions. Even with grow-your-own approaches and increased state flexibility, it is unlikely that our current educator workforce is sustainable at the national, state, local, and school levels. Right-sizing the workforce is likely to consume the remainder of most Superintendents’ careers and the loss of ESSER is an important trigger. Solutions will likely include: adopting innovative instructional and staffing models that ensure that all students are taught by expert teachers; reducing course/program offerings in secondary grades; increasing class sizes; and closing schools.
  • Listen – Design and routinely use stakeholder engagement activities – not just at the governance level conducting parent engagement, community and business partner meetings, and at the school level – that encourage family engagement to understand the LOI and the trade-offs of budget choices. Routinely report on these activities and how they are informing your strategy.
  • Landscape – Move beyond annual budgeting by using scenario planning to take a ‘what if’ approach. Scenario planning smooths out short-term decision-making and helps stakeholders better understand the trade-offs. The capacity to project student enrollment by sub-group, teacher retention and recruitment by certification, capital needs, and fiscal resources by source will be needed, but these will build a system-wide culture of data-driven decision-making.

In the wake of ESSER close-out, the need to improve efficiency will certainly be painful, this is a normal cycle of rebalancing similar to the one many of us experienced when the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act expired. Resilient school systems are those that adapt,innovate, and become agile enough to overcome challenges. We think though that this cycle is exacerbated by the acuteness of student learning loss and the growing threat of the teacher shortage. The latter is an opportunity to prepare for another season: hiring. In the coming months, we will spotlight how states and districts are thinking about recruitment and retention in compelling ways and getting results.

Remember the adage, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” If you oversee resource allocation, now is the time to admire the view from the cliff and find a safe path down to the valley, not step off.

School closures – A cliff or a Mountain Range?

According to NCES national data, we are in the midst of a cliff. Not just the ESSER cliff when federal Covid-19 recovery dollars will come to an end. That is already confounding grants administration and grant compliance leaders. We are in the midst of an enrollment cliff and every single state is impacted. Axios reports that over 1 million students left public K12 last year. The most significant dips are in primary grades. Why does this matter? It’s a leading indicator for the next 10 years in terms of FTE and funding. 

Here are the deets:

  • Prekindergarten and Kindergarten: 13 percent decrease
  • Grades 1 to 8: 3 percent decrease
  • Grades 9 to 12: 0.4 percent increase

State Summary:

  • Mississippi and Vermont had the largest percent declines (5 percent), and Washington, New Mexico, Kentucky, New Hampshire, and Maine also had declines of 4 percent or more.
  • 18 states had declines of 3 percent or more.
  • 29 states had declines between 1 percent and 2.99 percent.
  • The District of Columbia, South Dakota, and Utah had changes in enrollment of less than 1 percent.

Why is this happening?

  1. Demographic Changes: Changes in birth rates, population migration patterns, and overall population growth can directly impact school enrollments. If there are fewer children being born or families are moving away from a particular region, it can lead to decreased enrollment.
  2. Private Schools: The growth of private schools can draw students away from public schools, leading to a decrease in enrollment. Families with resources reentered schooling post-pandemic by choosing private over public schools.
  3. Homeschooling: Homeschooling has become an increasingly popular choice for some families, particularly in situations where parents feel they can provide a more tailored education or have concerns about the quality of public schooling. The availability of online education and remote learning options might attract students who find this approach more flexible or suitable for their needs.
  4. Economic Factors: Economic downturns have led to families relocating due to job changes or financial instability, which can impact enrollment numbers. In some cases, families might also need to move to areas with lower costs of living, which could influence their schooling choices.
  5. Demographic Shifts: Changes in the composition of the population can result in declining enrollment.
  6. Policy Changes: Changes in education policies, such as changes to attendance zones, school funding, or curriculum standards, can influence families’ decisions regarding public school enrollment.

These shifts have various implications for public school superintendents. Consider Anchorage where FTE and funding have hit the community hard. The Superintendent made a heartfelt case to the community, who accepted the changes with bittersweet courage. Denver schools are using a constituent committee to explore options and make recommendations to their school board. San Antonio has mapped out the case for enrollment declines positioning parents as partners in the new reality.

EduSolve worked with multiple district leaders to organize a self-checkfor executive leadership to help them get ready for potential closures and the road ahead.

One thing is clear in the immediate, potential budget cuts, resource reallocation, and changes in staffing are only a few of the new strategies that will be necessary in the coming years as school closures become part of the norm.

Rainy Days and Mondays

Tax revenue in states outperformed their pre-pandemic growth trajectory in most states. That’s good; right? Maybe. Consider that annual revenue growth rates continue to slow and is on track for negative growth by the close of FY23 and into FY24 when Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) funding will all but dry up.

The cut-off from COVID-19 federal investments and weak economy are creating a perfect storm for shortfall in state and local public education agencies1.

Many states experienced tax revenue gains for the second year in a row in fiscal 2022, but annual growth rates cooled when compared with the record pace set in the previous fiscal year. What feels like a surplus now will feel very different as slow growth intersects with the end of federal budget subsidies. The National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO) reports rainy day fund balances continued to grow in fiscal 2022 after increasing 58% in fiscal 2021, and the median balance as a share of general fund spending is projected to be 12% in fiscal 2023.

The rainy day for most states may be upon us as NASBO is also anticipating a 3.1% annual decline in general fund revenue amid weakening economic conditions. This decline will hit the coffers of local school districts and schools hard in FY25.

So What?

School funding is a blend of federal, state, and local dollars. Local funding largely comes from property taxes. Formula federal money typically targets low-income students or other distinct groups and has steep compliance requirements that will reactivate once ESSER ends. State funding is where things get complicated, and states will need to get thrifty.

What should school districts do?

  1. Recognize states may adjust their public education funding formula. All but four states have a fixed formula that hasn’t been adjusted in the current economy. Connect your legislative agenda to preserve or increase the formula now, before the conversations start without you.
  2. Conduct a first wave of cuts using creative approaches like shortened instructional staff annual calendars or shortened school weeks.
  3. Consider step-back planning now to proactively budget for the eventuality of the end of ESSER.
  4. Prioritize ROI and LOI based on which investments produced the greatest yield.
  5. Save the people = hiring talent is particularly tricky in the public education sector now, so retain staff, but realize that federal compliances on qualified and certified requirements kick in as soon as 18 months from now.

The plan to step back from big budgets is becoming more and more critical as annual revenue growth rates respond to a slowing economy.

Now is the time to prepare for the rainy day before the bell on Monday.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2022). Public School Revenue Sources. Condition of Education. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved [date], from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/cma.