A New Funding Model Could Save Cash-Strapped Public Schools

Written by Alison Kotch

A concept called weighted-student funding could help transform education at public schools in low-income areas, ensuring all students get the support they need to succeed. 

As deputy superintendent of Shelby County Schools in Memphis, Tenn., Lin Johnson has a bird’s-eye view of each district’s student population and funding. “When you start to think about the level of poverty within Memphis, it’s pretty deep,” Johnson says: Of the 104,000 students currently enrolled in the county, close to 40 percent live in poverty. And, Johnson adds, despite the funding and staff dedicated to the county’s school districts each year, there is no guarantee those resources are actually helping the students who need it most.

Johnson credits a funding model called student-weighted allocation for improving the way Shelby schools now operate. “When I first arrived here, [I spoke with] a number of principals, and the one thing I heard that echoed was, ‘We need to address inequity within our districts,’” Johnson says. “How are we aligning resources to make sure we are meeting the needs of students, [while] giving principals flexibility and autonomy to address those needs?”

In a traditional funding model, state, local and federal sources allocate resources to each school district by ratio — one teacher for every 12 students, for example. With weighted-student funding (WSF), each school receives a budget based on the number of students at their school, while taking into account each student’s individual needs. Proponents of this funding model praise it as a way to ensure students who need additional funding for a specific reason (i.e. English language learners, special education students, and so on) receive those funds, while helping principals feel like they have more control of the planning process.

Districts can also use their funding to educate teachers. Angie Teas, principal at Mark Twain Elementary in Tulsa, Okla., applied for the Empower pilot program, a teacher-training program offered through a partnership with Tulsa Public Schools, Leading Educators and Education Resource Strategies (ERS), a national education nonprofit. Like those in Shelby County, school districts in Tulsa are chronically underfunded. After implementing Empower, each teacher was left with 90 additional minutes each week for collaborative planning between classes, something Johnson and Teas both deem “essential.” “Instead of it being a compliance-based process that schools complete over the summer,” says Eddie Branchaud, principal associate at ERS, “we are building a process in which schools look at student and teacher needs, identify priorities and engage their teams — all on an earlier timeline that allows them to hire the talent they need and prep their staff to implement [any necessary] changes.”

“The goal is to ensure schools use the resources they have to ensure all kids have an opportunity to be successful — and this includes strategies on how to use time, assigning teachers in ways that leverage their expertise and giving new teachers support from mentors,” says David Rosenberg, partner at ERS. “You’re also able to allocate dollars more equitably. As far as transparency, it’s very clear why you get what you get. It’s about student need, and not every student gets the same thing.”

While some school districts opt to partner with nonprofits like ERS to help implement WSF for a fee, other school districts, such as those in New York and Chicago, have decided to go it alone. Regardless of the approach, “it’s giving more autonomy to schools,” says Marguerite Roza, senior research affiliate at the Center on Reinventing Public Education and director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown, a research center dedicated to exploring and modeling complex educational policies and practice. “There’s some research that shows that when you’re looking at school productivity, there’s a cocktail of conditions that yield a higher return on your dollar.”

How high of a return remains to be seen. While WSF has been implemented in the school systems of 16 major urban areas as of 2018, how it actually helps students is still being determined. In 2016, the Edunomics Lab received a three-year grant from the federal government to study 19 districts where WSF has been implemented, which include those in Shelby County as well as other cities such as Atlanta, Chicago, Baltimore, San Francisco and Denver. In April of this year, the lab will host a meeting between researchers and other interested parties to discuss WSF’s impact on standardized test scores, while identifying areas of the funding formula that require more research. “The number one reason districts do this is for equity,” Roza says. “Right now in a lot of districts, they are doling out principals and AP programs and may end up with one school that spends a lot more than another, and that’s not particularly equitable.”

Though it will be a few years before there’s enough data to show if this model works or not, the key to its popularity might lie in the fact that students seem to be in favor of it. Clark County, in Nevada, isn’t currently using a WSF model, but they’re moving in that direction, thanks to local high-school students who were invited to provide feedback on the current budgeting process. “The conclusion was that [the school] should make that decision, not the district,” says Roza. According to a town hall held last month, Clark County district leaders are expecting to implement their changes by 2024.

But even though students seem to support WSF, Roza also points out that it might not be right for every district. An individual school’s capacity to deal with change is a important thing to consider. “If I’m in a district and I don’t have really great principal management skills, [such a] model might be a bad idea, given that I don’t have the conditions in place to benefit from it,” Roza says.

Similarly, there’s no easy way to identify that there’s a direct correlation between student-weighted allocation and improvement in grades. “It doesn’t seem practical to say ‘If my kid’s in third grade and my district just adopted a weighted-student formula, that’s the reason their reading scores went up,’” Roza says. “I think what we are realizing is that we thought we could run large urban districts as factories: We could line up the pieces and parts in the same way, and get the same results.”

While WSF often helps school districts with more than 20,000 students, critics say it doesn’t do much for smaller districts, such as those with fewer than 5,000 students enrolled. “If you have a small enough pot of money where you know what’s going on with each school, I wouldn’t bother with it,” Roza says. And because smaller schools automatically receive less money due to a smaller student body, the formula can actually backfire: In Boston, for example, implementing weighted student funding led to a Hunger Games scenario, where one school gained faculty while another lost beloved teachers.

Regardless of outcome on a student-by-student basis, Roza says that giving schools control over their own finances is a significant improvement. “Much of what schooling does involves human interactions, human process and relationships,” Roza says. “By giving principals the ability to decide how to spend [their money], you’ve made a step towards equity.”

This post originally appeared on NationSwell.

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30 comments

Anna R
Anna R5 days ago

TYFS

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Louise A
Louise A11 days ago

Thanks for sharing

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Maria P
Maria P18 days ago

thank you

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Dr. Jan Hill
Dr. Jan H25 days ago

thanks

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Chad Anderson
Chad Aabout a month ago

Thank you.

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Joemar K
Joemar Karvelisabout a month ago

Thanks

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Gene J
Gene Jacobsonabout a month ago

Leaving the bulk of school funding to local districts results in insane disparities that do children no good at all. Wealthy districts thrive, the poorest do not. The only way to ensure adequate funding for all children is something like this run, and paid for, by state governments. There are those who say things like "I have no children, why should I be taxed?" and similar nonsense, but the truth is, we all have a stake in education. The nation's success depends on an educated workforce, children are our future is literally true, these are the ones who will run the world when we are in out dotage, it is in everyone's best interest they be as well prepared as possible. DeVos is a disaster, but a temporary one, as is everything about this administration. It will take decades to fix all that they have broken, particularly since they have done so much without telling anyone they did it.

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Pam B
Pam Babout a month ago

Something must be done to save schools all across the Nation. Education seems to be low on Trump's list. De Vos must be removed. She is in Trump's pocket of greed. We need to get these people out of leadership positions. We are millions and they are a handful. Why are we allowing this? This isn't Germany when Hitler ran that country into the ground.

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Lisa M
Lisa Mabout a month ago

Thanks.

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Lisa M
Lisa Mabout a month ago

Thanks.

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