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School Choice Fans Liked This ESSA Funding Pilot. Will They Be Disappointed?

By Alyson Klein — April 08, 2018 3 min read
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In what was billed as a victory for the school choice community, the Every Student Succeeds Act allowed districts to apply for a “weighted student funding pilot.” But for now, it doesn’t look like most of the five districts that want to participate in the first year of the pilot, the 2018-19 school year, are planning to use the flexibility to lay the groundwork for new school choice programs.

Here’s how the pilot works: Participating districts can combine federal, state, and local dollars into a single funding stream tied to individual students. English-language learners, kids in poverty, students in special education—in short, students who cost more to educate—would carry with them more money than other students.

In theory, adopting a weighted student-funding formula could make it easier for districts to operate school choice programs, since money would be tied to individual students and could therefore follow them to charter or virtual public schools. (The money could not be used at private schools, however.)

That could be why choice fans—especially the Trump administration—were initially really excited about the pilot’s potential to further students’ public school options. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute published an analysis last year by Matthew Joseph of the Foundation for Excellence in Education exploring how the pilot could be used as a vehicle for choice. And Jason Botel, who is the acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education, gave the pilot a high-profile shout-out early in his tenure.

But for now, most districts appear to be thinking of the pilot as a means to make sure disadvantaged students get their fair of funding. Three districts that are applying—California’s Wilsona School District, Oregon’s Salem-Kaizer School District 24J, and Pennsylvania’s Upper Adams School District—don’t have school choice programs in the works, district representatives said.

“Equalizing funding is what we are looking at,” said Joseph L. Albin, the director of curriculum, instruction, & Assessment for the Upper Adams School District, a 1,700-student district in rural, southern Pennsylvania, where about about half the kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. “We are hoping to serve a greater amount of kids at the same school and be able to provide equity to all students, not just the ones who are needy but don’t qualify.”

One of the districts applying—Indianapolis—already has a school choice program, and uses a similar, student-based formula to distribute its state and local dollars. But participating in the pilot isn’t a way to bolster the district’s existing choice program or create a new one, said Carrie Cline Black, a district spokeswoman.

“Indianapolis Public Schools has been working for two years toward greater flexibility in school funding for our school principals,” she said in an email. “We took a giant step toward that this year by adopting and applying [a weighted formula]. We see this federal pilot as another way for us to walk the talk and provide even greater flexibility to our school leaders, while also helping to educate the DOE about the benefits of weighted student funding in pushing greater student outcomes.”

But there could be one applicant who has school choice in mind: Puerto Rico. The island’s school system was recently ravaged by Hurricane Maria, leading to widespread educational disruption. In response, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló signed into law legislation that would create new “alianza” schools very similar to charters. The U.S. territory’s participation in the pilot, if it’s approved, could enable those efforts. The Puerto Rico Department of Education did not respond to requests for more information before deadline.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that the pilot won’t eventually lay the groundwork for choice. The department has set up a second deadline in July for districts that want to get going in 2019-20 school year. And while only 50 districts can participate in the initial rounds of the pilot, the feds could open it up to more down the line.

Image: Getty Images

Want to learn more about the Every Student Succeeds Act? Here’s some useful information: