To the Editor:
As a longtime Seattle schoolteacher, I was somewhat disappointed to read your front-page article “‘Weighted’ Funding of Schools Gains Favor” (Nov. 3, 2004), in that it gave little coverage to what is most crucial to the topic of “weighted student” funding: the implementation of this budget strategy. As your article points out, this practice, also called “student based” budgeting, in which a school district’s money shifts from one school to another as it follows the more needy student, is often closely linked with the policy of site-based management. This is the case in Seattle.
After five years under the weighted-student formula, my experience tells me this is an example of “good idea, poor execution.” The bottom line is: The strategy may reduce central-administration costs by having schools do a district’s job, but there has been no significant change in the district’s achievement gap, which was our charge. In other words, we have not reduced between schools the disproportionate number of dropouts, discipline referrals, or below-grade-level students.
In my 20-plus years with the Seattle public schools, I have come across too few principals who have a “we will succeed” attitude, such as the one highlighted in the article. Principals’ leadership is critical to successful implementation, because without a focused, shared vision, the group discourse eventually deteriorates into circular arguments, too often resulting in frustration and hasty decisions. In some cases, a communication breakdown has led to overbearing principals’ dictating solutions, irrespective of their students’ needs.
Another factor that precludes the smooth implementation of weighted-student funding is that staff members, however well intentioned, have a difficult time separating positions (library) from persons (the beloved librarian working at a school for 10 years). Thus, when it comes to hard discussions about the value of a position to the overall goal of the building, especially when the person holding the position is involved in the discussions, comments are tempered, withheld, or, worse, taken personally.
In buildings losing money (those in affluent sections of town), they have to evaluate and make judgments about positions to cut. In the schools with extra student-based money, they have to argue over the value of increasing the working hours of the nurse or opening another classroom. How do you choose between funding the arts (increasing instrumental music) vs. the psychological-counselor position? Are two instructional assistants of more value or is one teacher? Should the school hire a reading, math, or technology specialist? Would a family-support worker be more helpful?
These are tough questions, and there is little research to guide us, so emotions can run high. In the end, whether adding or eliminating positions, there are usually hard feelings, which resonate throughout the staff and often into the next year.
Anyone who has taught in high-poverty, multilingual neighborhoods knows the value of reducing class sizes, finding more student and family support, and offering the “extras” that these children might never have (music lessons). It makes sense to support these students with additional funding, but it does not make sense to leave the distribution of these funds to a haphazard, let’s-not-hurt-anyone’s-feelings system of guessing what might work. Districts considering adopting the weighted-student approach would do well to find a solution to the implementation problem.
A version of this article appeared in the November 24, 2004 edition of Education Week as Implementation Crucial to ‘Weighted’ Funding