Education Letter to the Editor

School Funding Reassessed

April 17, 2007 3 min read

To the Editor:

In a Feb. 28, 2007, letter to the editor, Manny Lopez comments on my and Shikha Dalmia’s Commentary, “Experimenting With School Choice: A Tale Of Two California Districts” (Feb. 14, 2007). He argues that weighted-student-funding formulas and results-based budgeting are fundamentally different mechanisms. We counter that any discrepancy between the two is a distinction without a difference.

In the education literature, weighted-student funding, student-based budgeting, and results-based budgeting are all used somewhat interchangeably under the broad tent of school empowerment based on the Edmonton, Alberta, school model. The Edmonton model embraces school autonomy, local control, and public school choice. These similar school finance mechanisms drive the money to the local school, which receives actual dollars based on the number of students rather than staffing positions from the school district.

Oakland, Calif., actually has a much more robust system of school empowerment than San Francisco. Oakland allocates about 83 percent of its money through results-based budgeting, while San Francisco allocates about 36 percent of its money through a weighted-student formula. San Francisco holds back special education funds and other categorical funds for specific allocation by the central office. In Oakland, more funds follow the student. In practice, results-based budgeting is a weighted-student formula, just by a different name. Results-based budgeting is far more aggressive as an implementation of school autonomy.

As for Mr. Lopez’s comments about average daily attendance, this is unfortunately an inequity that all California schools must contend with. School finance is always based on average daily attendance rather than actual enrollment. The fact that some schools and districts are penalized because of absenteeism and truancy, especially in urban areas, is another policy fight that needs to be rectified at the state level. Nevertheless, a weighted-student formula and results-based budgeting still give principals more control over the per-pupil funding that is allocated based on average daily attendance.

Mr. Lopez also criticizes us for not mentioning that Randolph E. Ward was the state-appointed administrator for both Compton, Calif., and Oakland. We should have done so. Mr. Ward learned from Compton, to the benefit of Oakland. He learned that positive school change could only come from local autonomy where the principal, teachers, and parents have a sense of ownership over their schools.

Finally, Mr. Lopez chastises us for not comparing Oakland with other large California school districts. The bottom line for Oakland is that, in three years, it went from failure to having the highest academic gain among California’s 33 largest unified districts, urban or otherwise.

Perhaps the best indication of Oakland’s improvement is that middle-class families are returning to its public schools. As The Oakland Tribune reports:

“Rockridge families might have frequented their local coffee shop, market, and butcher, but few saw the neighborhood elementary school as a place for their kids. Despite its proximity to the area’s tree-lined streets and restored Craftsman bungalows, Peralta was a neighborhood school in name only. …

“Middle class families are slowly changing the face of Peralta and other public schools in parts of the city. Whether swayed by high mortgage payments, a newfound sense of community, or the buzz surrounding their neighborhood school, some young families are choosing public education for their kids.

“In the past three years, Peralta has seen a growing number of white children enroll in kindergarten. Many come from middle- or upper-middle-class families more than willing to pour their time—and sometimes, their money—into the school.”

Despite Mr. Lopez’s claims, Oakland in 2007 is a much better place for students.

Lisa Snell

Education Director

Reason Foundation

Los Angeles, Calif.

A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2007 edition of Education Week as School Funding Reassessed