Equitable Education is Possible
By: Nancy Salvato
A summary, with comments, of Fund the Child: Tackling Inequity & Antiquity in School Finance released by Fordham Institute, June 2006
The Fordham Institute recently released a report, Fund the Child: Tackling Inequity & Antiquity in School Finance, which advocates reforming the current system of school funding. This is a long time coming. A convincing argument is made that schools should not be funded based on number of staff; formulas which do not adequately address local variables; politically savvy local school advocates; or property wealth. Instead, because some students require more resources, a more equitable system of “weighted student funding,” or WSF, would guarantee an appropriate amount of money follow each child to the school he/she attends.
The simple facts show that some children begin school behind their peers because of health, nutrition, and parenting differences. Additionally, students might have medical disabilities, speak a foreign language, or have received little formal schooling in their country of origin. Variations, such as those listed, contribute to the achievement gaps highlighted by NCLB. Good schools can meet high need populations by increasing instructional time and hiring more capable teachers. Unfortunately, because of current funding formulas, many schools have been unable to address these special considerations adequately.
Current funding formulas have failed for a number of reasons. First, there are inherent problems which result from using school size as a consideration. As it now stands, minimum staffing requirements, based on increments of students, dictate how much money will be distributed. Arbitrary cutoffs determine funds for transportation; food; facilities; security; maintenance; utilities; grounds; and other costs. Discrepancies occur from this practice, best illustrated by the following examples from the report.
[Imagine] Two schools in the same district, one with 200 students and one with 800. Each receives funding for one principal ($80,000) and one assistant principal ($60,000), one school counselor ($40,000), and a football team ($20,000). The small school would get $1,000 per student from the district for these four expenses, while the larger school would receive only $250 per student. Due to the district’s insistence on allocating only whole staff members, the small school’s counselor is able to spread her time over 200 students, while the 800 students at the large school are left to fight for time with their one counselor. Now, picture two different schools: one with 450 students and one with 500 students. Imagine that the district assigns a new teacher (with an average salary of $40,000) to a school for every 20 students, and an extra assistant principal ($60,000) and a librarian ($50,000) are both assigned once a school hits the 500 student mark. Despite having just 50 more students, the larger school receives an extra $300 per student, or an additional $140,000, in funding.
Although districts allocate similarly sized schools a certain number of staff positions, one might receive considerably more funding because teachers may have years of experience and higher levels of education. (In my opinion, of particular interest is that because tenured teachers have priority over non tenured and new hires, they can work at the best schools in the district even if they are not the best qualified for the position they hold.)
States and districts sometimes distribute less money to a school, knowing that it will be receiving federal funding; violating the “supplement not supplant” principle. Even if it costs more to educate a particular child, the school will not receive the necessary funding because of this practice.
WSF would addresses the above problems by ensuring that funding received by schools is based on a per-student basis, instead of being based on staffing levels, programs, or number of students. Characteristics of particular children would be weighted, giving special consideration to students with greater needs (poor, disabled, or English language learners, for example), who would be allocated more money.
It is important to note that “Weighted Student Funding” addresses equity in funding; it does not call for “adequacy” (an arbitrary amount of local and state education funds to be distributed to each school and deemed necessary to provide an “adequate” education). Proponents for “adequacy” usually argue that by adding more resources to the system, schools would produce higher results. In contrast, WSF advocates that federal, state, and district policymakers allocate existing funds fairly and rationally. Furthermore, individual schools should be allowed to spend their budget to meet the needs of their unique student populations. WSF is about distributing money fairly and enabling schools to change their spending patterns to be more effective. School principals must be allowed the freedom to determine their needs.
In the name of transparency, actual teacher salaries must be used in equity calculations to account for true staff costs rather than hiding spending by relying on average salaries.
The amount of Title I money a state receives per student must not depend on how much each state spends per student because this unfairly benefits wealthy states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut and unfairly penalizes states such as West Virginia. If Title 1 funding of students was based on a family’s income levels, and whether they exert a high spending “effort” relative to their capacity, this could prevent wealthy states with few low income students from receiving a disproportionate share of Title I money while at the same time ensure that hard-to educate children become desirable students to enroll.
At-risk children must be considered an asset to their schools. As of yet, there is no established ‘industry standard’ system of weights. In any case, the money accompanying each child must be sufficient to enable the student to show improvement trends and reach performance levels.
Schools must bear the full costs of teachers’ salaries; therefore, they need to be able to decide the optimal mix of senior and junior teachers on their payrolls. Districts should be able to deny senior teachers the right to choose their assignments, and instead, be allowed to select the best candidates for the circumstances. (Here is where I must add my two cents. School boards must be able to approve only the best qualified teacher for the job. In order to ensure this happens, principals must be able to implement merit pay and eliminate tenure. Otherwise, teachers with advanced degrees and experience will become too overqualified to be able to pursue new employment opportunities. Case in point, some school districts impose internal parameters on job searches such as BA with less than two years to meet budget constraints. How can a qualified teacher receive an interview in such a district? Meanwhile, less qualified teachers can keep their jobs by tenure alone. How unfair is
It must be emphasized that WSF does not advocate the Robin Hood principle of stealing from the rich and distributing to the poor. Even though local funding, drawn primarily on property taxes, makes up about 43 percent of the school budget, there is a way to be fair to local taxpayers. Here is one way that this potential problem is addressed in the report.
[First] Calculate the amount of funding to which each public school is entitled. The state would then require each locality to contribute to his calculated amount by taxing itself at a certain minimum rate. The state provides the remainder of the funds required by districts that did not generate the full amount through local taxes. This state subsidy is larger for poor districts than for affluent districts (which generate more local money at the same tax rate). As a result, every student is fully funded according to his/her needs but the local/state funding mix differs based on the local property base. Some localities may choose to go above and beyond the state’s allocation by assessing a higher tax rate than is required by the state and generating funding above and beyond the calculated state WSF amounts. Some might object to the resulting inequity, but in our view, this is tolerable so long as the poorest localities receive sufficient state funding.
I initially approached this report with skepticism; however, my two major concerns were addressed. One, the union should not be able to negotiate contracts which provide tenured teachers the wherewithal to dictate their job assignments. I believe that it should be taken one step further, though; that there should be merit pay and tenure should be taken out of the equation. Two, families with the means to live in a higher income neighborhood should not be subjected to socialist ideas such as Robin Hood funding schemes.
The Fordham Institute has put forth a workable plan from which to address current funding inequities in public education. There is no time like the present to work out the kinks and implement this viable solution to help resolve the crisis confronting our nation’s schools. Unless transparency is allowed to expose those who game the system, the status quo will continue unabated by educational reforms such as No Child Left Behind.
Copyright Â© Nancy Salvato 2006
Nancy Salvato is the President of The Basics Project, (www.Basicsproject.org) a non-profit, non-partisan 501 (C) (3) research and educational project whose mission is to promote the education of the American public on the basic elements of relevant political, legal and social issues important to our country. She is also a Staff Writer, for the New Media Alliance, Inc., a non-profit (501c3) coalition of writers and grass-roots media outlets, where she contributes on matters of education policy.