News

Tennessee District Weighs Giving Principals More Money, Spending Power to Help High-Needs Kids

By Naomi Nix | February 2, 2017

Ja'Marieon Anderson looks out a window in the National Civil Rights Museum near the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. was struck down by a bullett on Jan. 16 in Memphis, Tennessee. Hundreds marched from the north end of downtown Memphis in honor of the civil rights leader to the site where King was assassinated in 1968, which now houses the National Civil Rights Museum.Photo: Getty Images
Complaints about inequitable school funding systems are many, but solutions are hard to come by.

Enter Shelby County Schools.

The Tennessee district is exploring whether to adopt a weighted budgeting formula that would take into account the needs of disadvantaged students and give principals more spending authority, according to The Commercial Appeal.

Traditionally, school systems like Shelby County’s award dollars based on student enrollment or teacher salaries, regardless of whether they’re budgeting for a high-poverty school or one in an affluent neighborhood.

But proponents of weighted formulas say their technique is fairer because schools receive more dollars if they have higher-needs kids, such as those who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, English-language learners, or special education students.

Principals, in turn, get the flexibility to determine how to use those extra resources and how to make cuts while still accommodating students’ specific needs.

“Not all students have the same need,” said David Rosenberg, a partner with Education Resource Strategies, which Shelby County Schools hired to analyze whether such a system could work there.

Boston, Denver, New York City and Baltimore have adopted similar weighted school-funding formulas.

New York began using a weighted formula for much of its budgeting in 2007, after it became apparent that there were widespread per-pupil funding disparities across the district. By the 2011–12 school year, disparities among students with different levels of need had narrowed, even though the formula had been underfunded because of the recession, according to a review by the New York City Independent Budget Office.

Shelby County’s plan requires approval from the school board. At a board meeting last week, Chairman Chris Caldwell asked whether the new system would mean there would be “winners and losers” — some schools receiving more funding and others getting less, according to The Commercial Appeal. One response might be for the district to cap how much a school could gain or lose as a result of the new formula.

A pilot program will start next year with about six schools, which could begin developing strategies for how to use the extra resources to address issues such as poor attendance or parent engagement, the newspaper said.

After two years, the weighted budget formula would be implemented districtwide.

“It’s not just about the amount of funding we have, but about how well we are using it to meet the needs of our students and schools,” Lin Johnson, chief financial officer for the school district, told The 74. “Shifting to a student-based budgeting formula will enhance equity, transparency and flexibility across the district’s budget.”

Submit a Letter to the Editor