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Education Letter to the Editor

A Tale of Two Mechanisms

February 27, 2007 3 min read
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To the Editor:

Contrary to Lisa Snell and Shikha Dalmia’s assertion in their Commentary “Experimenting With School Choice: A Tale of Two California Districts” (Feb. 14, 2007), the Oakland Unified School District does not use a weighted-student-funding formula. Rather, it uses a funding mechanism known as results-based budgeting, a system first introduced by the Oakland district’s former state-appointed administrator, Randolph E. Ward, in late 2003 and rolled out districtwide in the fall of 2004. Virtually no other district in America funds its schools in this way.

That said, the district did send three delegations of stakeholders to Edmonton, Alberta, the birthplace of weighted-student funding, to take a look at the model as it played out in its schools. Oakland was not the first to do so, nor was it the last. Many such visits were made following the publication of Making Schools Work, a book by the University of California, Los Angeles, professor of management William G. Ouchi. I was a member of one of those delegations, and am currently teaching under results-based budgeting in Oakland.

The Oakland Unified district allocates revenue based on an individual school’s average daily attendance, not its enrollment. Schools in the district have to make annual adjustments, virtually midyear, to account for any changes in the schools’ attendance levels. Those calculations cannot be made until enrollment stabilizes and final allocations are in, generally in the first two weeks of November.

This is much too late, obviously inequitable, and therefore entirely unacceptable if we are truly attempting to level the playing field and adequately prepare our students for life in the 21st century. It is not too hard to imagine that our neediest schools have been losing out, as they, by and large, experience complex attendance problems. Exacerbating this is the fact that teachers’ salaries come into play in a major way under results-based budgeting, and are a key factor for consideration by principals when staffing their schools (salaries are not a factor under a weighted-student formula).

It has not been uncommon to hear that a teacher has been discriminated against because he or she was too expensive to hire. Likewise, seasoned teachers (de facto expensive) have received negative evaluations in unprecedented numbers, effectively causing them to leave the district or the profession entirely, a cost-cutting device if ever there was one.

California’s Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team, an entity charged with monitoring the financial situation of Oakland Unified as it operates under state receivership, reported in September that:

“The Budget Planning Manual has been finalized and the Results Based Budgeting (RBB) system is operational; however, the planning manual does not contain procedures for cost-benefits analysis nor procedures and criteria for evaluating the consequences of eliminating programs. There are also no directives prohibiting school-based decisions that cause inequities among schools in course offerings, materials, and practices.”

This is cause for concern. The notion that schools can be run like businesses is provocative. One cannot imagine a Fortune 500 company operating under such terms.

Not only do Ms. Snell and Ms. Dalmia fail to comprehensively compare the performance of Oakland with large urban districts other than Compton, Calif., they also fail to mention that the same state administrator, Mr. Ward, acted as state administrator in both districts. One can conclude that this was done either by choice or by the fact that they clearly had failed to do their proverbial homework. To not do so in this day and age and under these circumstances is nothing less than tragic.

Manny Lopez

Teacher

International Community School

Oakland, Calif.

The writer is a member of the executive board of directors for the Oakland Education Association.

A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 2007 edition of Education Week as A Tale of Two Mechanisms


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