Education Letter to the Editor

Seeing Empowerment in Weighted-Funding Plan

December 19, 2006 3 min read

To the Editor:

Bruce Baker and Michael A. Rebell may have some worthwhile criticisms of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s publication “Fund the Child” (“Robbing Peter to Pay Paul,” Commentary, Nov. 29, 2006). But based on three decades of work in an urban district, I’d say the report has much to recommend it.

The authors spend much of their time trashing Fordham’s support for weighted-student funding. They jump on an overreaching slogan, the “100 percent solution,” and try to run it and weighted funding into the ground. Give me a break. Weighted-student funding already exists at the district level; it just doesn’t work. Categorical funds disappear into school bureaucracies, and then who really knows whether any of the money is spent on targeted children. Talk about robbery.

Enamored of top-down management approaches, Messrs. Baker and Rebell scoff at the proposal’s most important concept: decentralization of districts, wherein resources are managed by schools. They talk about the “very complex realities of school improvement,” where programs vital to this goal are best managed at district and regional levels.

Obviously, they’ve never worked in an urban district.

Most of the time, you’re lucky in an urban district to have enough paper, pencils, and textbooks. Meanwhile, some supervisor comes along with an irrelevant staff-development program to gobble up your time and energy. And so on. If anything can save urban education, it will be some form of real decentralization. Then, principals and teachers can decide what they need, who has it, and then use their budget control to get it—rather than take what some bureaucrat or college professor thinks is best.

Contrary to the Commentary authors’ opinion, the Fordham proposal will not pave the way for vouchers and charter schools. Decentralization will have the opposite effect. Individual public schools, unshackled from the dead hand of bureaucracy, will (given a fair and robust assessment system) find their own way to success. It’s even possible that charter and voucher reforms will wither, because a good decentralization plan can empower public schools to develop choices of their own.

Barry McGhan


Center for Public School Renewal

Fenton, Mich.

To the Editor:

As signatories to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s report “Fund the Child,” we never viewed its recommendations as the “100 percent solution.” In fact, we agree emphatically with your Commentary authors Bruce Baker and Michael A. Rebell that implementing a weighted-student formula is not a silver bullet for improving student performance.

Our work and research on school funding and resource use in districts across the country have shown us that changing the funding system does not, of itself, ensure that the flexibility, capacity, and support exist to use resources in ways that are likely to improve student performance. Moreover, the details of these funding formulas, we’ve learned, make a big difference in whether they promote equity—or not.

Yet we continue to advocate that our district clients evaluate their funding systems and consider adopting a weighted-student formula as part of a set of reforms aimed at creating more-effective systems of schools. Why? Because quantifying district spending by type of student and across schools provides the basis for public discussion and further research about how resources are currently allocated and how much it takes to educate students with different needs. Examining the funding system also shines a light on the root causes of inequity and inflexibility in resource use.

A third reason is that a weighted-student formula makes it much easier to determine whether charters and other alternative school models are being funded at the proper levels, given the student populations they serve.

Resources matter—how much a school gets matters; how it organizes its resources matters. Implemented with care, a new funding system can empower entrepreneurial superintendents and principals to reorganize the time, people, and money in their schools in ways more likely to improve student performance.

A weighted-student formula is not a panacea for all ills, but it can be a vital part of designing better systems to support schools if it is combined with efforts to ensure adequacy, flexibility, leadership capacity, and accountability for improved performance.

Karen Hawley Miles

Executive Director

Stephen Frank


Education Resource Strategies

Boston, Mass.

A version of this article appeared in the December 20, 2006 edition of Education Week as Seeing Empowerment in Weighted-Funding Plan