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Reforming the Dollars by Weighting the Funding

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Beset by reduced tax revenues, school divisions across Virginia have been scrambling to balance their budgets.

But while federal stimulus funds may have provided many with a temporary reprieve, those funds won’t last forever – and without having made systemic reforms that gain greater efficiencies, in a few years school systems will find themselves back where they started.

One such reform would be to establish a system of Weighted Student Funding, (WSF) first proposed in 2006 by a bipartisan coalition whose members ranged from Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff to Ronald Reagan’s Education Secretary.

The essence of the concept was that funding, weighted according to a student’s needs, should follow that child to whatever public school he or she attends, and that funding should arrive at the school as real dollars (not teaching positions, ratios or staffing).  Simultaneously, the program pushes down decision-making and spending transparency to the school level, so that funds can be spent based on the needs of the kids while focusing on results.

Autonomy, flexibility and real decision-making power is made at the principal level, where the needs of the individual school and individual students are best known.  Meanwhile, principals are held accountable transparent outcomes to clear performance goals.

I’ve long argued that such an approach better meets the needs of students in a diverse world no longer populated by the cast of Ozzie and Harriet. But until now, no one had examined the result of such funding in those few cities that had incorporated it.

Comes now a new Weighted Student Funding Yearbook published by the Reason Foundation. This yearbook looks at the 15 school districts that are using some form of WSF, examining the best practices that have helped school systems eliminate funding wasted on bureaucracy and drive more dollars into schools and individual classrooms.
For example –

  • Prior to 2008, less than half of Hartford, Connecticut’s education funding made it to the classroom. With WSF, the district redirected resources to the schools with a 20 percent reduction in central office expenses and elimination of more than 40 district-level staff positions.
  • Last year, Baltimore (MD) City Schools confronted a budget shortfall of nearly $80 million. By creating a “fair student funding plan,” $165 million in cuts from the central office not only covered the shortfall but also allowed the redistribution of $88 million to the schools. By next year, the Superintendent will have cut 489 jobs from the central office, re-directing 80 percent of the district operating budget to the schools.
  • WSF also smoothes out budget reductions. Under current systems, schools funded on a staffing model can lose entire teaching positions when fewer students are enrolled. But in Poudre (CO), schools lose only the funding associated with the student and have the flexibility to shift funding around to avoid dramatic staffing losses.
  • And even as Oakland (CA) schools were forced to make significant budget cuts, most of those reductions took place at the central office level, while nearly 90 percent of the unrestricted funding assigned to schools continued to flow there.

Creating a Weighted Student Funding formula forces a school system to re-examine where it spends its dollars, and the outcomes it produces in student learning. In turn, that re-examination gives a school system few options other than to spend the funds where it will get the greatest returns – at the school level, not the district level.

And it empowers those at the school level to decide how best to spend those monies, by relieving them of decisions made centrally. Principals decide if dollars should be spent each year on a new teacher, new books, new software or better communications with parents.

Admittedly, the school systems now using some variant of weighted student funding are all larger than most of those in Virginia. At 22,000 students, Hartford is the smallest, yet is larger than all but 12 Virginia school divisions. But those 12 school divisions educate more than half the public schoolchildren in Virginia, supported by a concomitant percentage of taxpayer dollars.

And at a time of budgetary crisis, reforming half the dollars spent is better than reforming none.

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