Taheri: Students Who Need More Should Get More. Student-Based Budgeting Can Make This Happen. The Every Student Succeeds Act Can Help

“Equity” is a word used often in education circles, even if there remains some confusion about what it means. At its heart, educational equity is about fairness: making sure all students, no matter their circumstances, have an opportunity to succeed. That means not only ensuring that all students have access to great teachers, high-quality instructional materials and advanced coursework, but also that kids who are at risk — of academic failure, of dropping out, of not living up to their potential — get the supports they need to enjoy the same opportunities as their more advantaged peers.

In short, students who need more should get more.

How can we most effectively direct more resources to the students who need them most? The most straightforward solution is student-based budgeting, under which schools receive funding based on the number of students they serve and, more importantly, the characteristics of those students. Also known as equitable student funding or weighted student funding, student-based budgeting allocates funds — not staff or other resources — on a per-student basis, with a base level of funding for each student followed by additional funds based on weights, or objective student characteristics, such as eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch or English learner status.

This approach also can foster better educational options by supporting effective, scalable public school choice. We know that public charter schools in large urban districts receive, on average, roughly 70 cents to every dollar of state funding allocated to district-run public schools. Student-based budgeting can help to close that gap by ensuring that all public schools, including public charter schools, receive the funding necessary to serve their students well.

To better understand the potential impact of student-based budgeting, take a long-standing and well-known example of within-district inequity: the distribution of experienced, effective teachers. Many large districts calculate school budgets using average teacher salaries, even though schools that serve higher proportions of students from low-income families often hire less experienced — and, therefore, less expensive — teachers, whereas schools serving more advantaged students often hire more experienced, more expensive teachers. In essence, this leads to poorer schools subsidizing wealthier schools, since dollars are allocated based on average costs for the number of teachers a central office believes a school needs, not on the actual salaries of the teachers.

Student-based budgeting would upend this practice, resulting in increased transparency, flexibility and equity and giving schools that serve higher-need students funding proportionate to their needs.

A number of states and districts have recognized the value of this type of weighted formula, and some of these systems are led by members of Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of state and district education leaders. In Washington, D.C., for example, where Chiefs for Change member Hanseul Kang serves as state superintendent, the state agency allocates the majority of non-federal funds to local education agencies through a weighted per-pupil formula that includes a foundation amount of funding for each student, with extra based on student characteristics, resulting in greater support for kids who experience homelessness, are in foster care or are eligible for other forms of public assistance.

Likewise, at the district level, Denver Public Schools, now led by Chiefs for Change member Susana Cordova, first implemented student-based budgeting in 2007 as part of a focus on school-level autonomy. The district allocates funds to district-managed schools using a weighted student funding formula. DPS recognized that “school leaders make the best decisions on how the school is structured; the [student-based budgeting] process is a reflection of that belief.”

On the whole, however, student-based budgeting has failed to gain significant momentum nationwide, despite federal efforts to encourage more districts to allocate funds in this way. In December 2015, then-President Barack Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act, which includes a provision allowing flexibility for local education agencies to consolidate eligible federal, state and local funding “in order to create a single school funding system based on weighted per-pupil allocations for low-income and otherwise disadvantaged students.”

Given the power of student-based budgeting to level the playing field, it’s unfortunate that very few districts took up the call to apply for this flexibility. The ESSA provision permits up to 50 districts to pilot a weighted per-pupil funding system for three years, but only five districts applied for the flexibility, and only Puerto Rico received approval (that approval was later rescinded).

Although those numbers are underwhelming, perhaps they’re not surprising; changing an entrenched system necessarily involves costs, and the original pilot offered no additional funding to assist districts in transitioning away from the status quo. Indeed, the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan research entity working on behalf of Congress, recently published an analysis of the pilot, attempting to explain why it failed to garner greater interest among school districts. The report suggests that the pilot’s relative unpopularity was due, in part, to surmountable obstacles, such as an insufficiently long duration (only three years) and a lack of federal financial support “to ease the transition to the new funding system.”

As a nation, we shouldn’t give up on student-based budgeting. It remains a proven path to narrowing our pernicious equity gap, a way to ensure that all students have a chance to begin the race at the same starting line. Congress should provide funding to incentivize participation in the ESSA pilot and help districts move away from traditional, inequitable funding methods. The U.S. Department of Education should open another window for districts to apply for the pilot. And districts should step up to take on the challenge of reshaping the way resources flow to schools and students. We talk a lot about educational equity — now let’s put our money where our mouths are.

Ramin Taheri is director of advocacy and policy at Chiefs for Change.

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