School & District Management Opinion

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

By Bruce D. Baker & Michael A. Rebell — November 28, 2006 7 min read
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When the Thomas B. Fordham Institute issued its “manifesto” entitled “Fund the Child: Tackling Inequity and Antiquity in School Finance” in June, dozens of distinguished figures from all points along the political spectrum signed their names to it. (“Call for ‘Weighted’ Student Funding Gets Bipartisan Stamp of Approval,” July 12, 2006.) We would not have.

—Steve Dininno


Having both worked diligently for years to rectify inequities in education finance systems, we are concerned that the particular silver bullet emphasized in the Fordham report—an approach known as “weighted student funding”—would, if enacted as proposed, be more harmful than helpful to children’s interests. We don’t deny that in certain circumstances, weighted-student funding can be an effective way to distribute education funds within large school districts. But without a host of other concurrent reforms, it cannot—despite being touted by the report’s authors as the “100 percent solution”—create equity for public school students and, in fact, would probably undermine it.

We are not arguing that allocating resources to schools on the basis of educational need is a bad idea. Clearly, it is a good idea. Just as state legislators have been obligated by state courts to target funding to districts on the basis of students’ educational needs, so too should district officials be obligated to target resources to schools on the basis of such need. It just makes sense.

But the vision of decentralized governance and weighted-student funding proposed in “Fund the Child” is deeply flawed in at least three major ways.

First, it ignores the biggest funding problem facing public schools: the lack of adequate funding. By this, we mean that state legislatures must first meet their constitutional obligation to provide adequate funding, equitably distributed to local public school districts and the children they serve. The authors of the report state that they would not “presume” to tell state officials what level of funding is adequate to provide students the basic resources they need to meet state standards. Yet state court judges in 21 of the 28 final decisions regarding constitutional requirements for public school funding—decisions most often made by the highest state courts and informed by detailed “costing out” studies—have not hesitated to do just that.

The vision proposed in ‘Fund the Child’ ignores the biggest funding problem facing public schools: the lack of <i>adequate</i> funding.

By ignoring the need to ensure adequate funding in their reform agenda, the authors have invalidated the “equity” basis of their position. While schools with more at-risk students should indeed be provided more funding to create programs for success, these changes must come in the context of determining the actual cost of implementing needed programs, rather than merely changing the distribution of an arbitrary and insufficient amount of education funding. Otherwise, the proposed reform will merely be robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Imagine, for example, that we are talking about New York City, and that Peter attends a relatively high-functioning, low-needs school, while Paul attends a struggling, high-needs school in the same district. Under the “Fund the Child” proposal, New York City would be expected to provide the two boys with a similar, quality education simply by (a) decentralizing and then (b) targeting its resources within the district on a student-need basis. But New York City’s funding level is only about 83 percent of the average funding level of neighboring New York metropolitan-area districts, despite having much higher-than-average costs and student needs. Further, New York City teachers earn—at the same experience and degree level—about 20 percent less than teachers in nearby districts (including Yonkers, Mount Vernon, and White Plains), not to mention the affluent suburbs. That’s a major handicap in recruiting teachers of sufficient quality. Thus, low-needs schools in New York City are often higher-need than those in surrounding districts.

In essence, then, the authors of “Fund the Child” would have New York City deprive its low-needs schools even more, perhaps by giving them 40 percent to 50 percent less than lower-needs schools in adjacent districts, in order to target sufficient funding to higher-needs ones. That certainly doesn’t meet our criteria for “equity.”

Second, the authors argue that there is no conceptual or empirical basis for setting pupil weights. In so doing, they ignore (or are simply unaware of) decades of empirical research on education costs and student needs, and the fact that objective cost studies have been undertaken in accordance with a number of professional methodologies in over two dozen states. Instead, they argue that the process of weight determination should be done in a purely political fashion by a district-appointed “committee on weights.”

Yet publications dating back to the 1970s and through recent years have highlighted problems with purely politically determined state weighting systems. In some cases, state legislatures have constructed weighting systems that allocate systematically less funding to those with greater needs. In others, legislatures have specifically manipulated pupil weights and other cost adjustments to perpetuate racial disparities in funding. In Kansas, the state supreme court recently declared the legislature’s pupil-weighting system “politically distorted.” Similar issues seem already to be carrying over to city weighted-funding systems. Cincinnati, for example, has implemented a system that provides an extra 5 percent weighting for students from poverty backgrounds and 29 percent extra weighting for the gifted and talented.

Third, the plan outlined in “Fund the Child” links two proposals that should, in fact, be separated: the decentralization of governance of large city school districts, and a formula for allocating financial resources to individual schools so that those resources may be managed flexibly by principals. The authors apparently base their arguments for coupling these approaches on data published by William Ouchi of the University of California, Los Angeles, whom they cite, that make inappropriate comparisons of average student-performance levels in major urban districts, including Seattle and Houston (identified as decentralized with weighted-student funding) and New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles (identified as centralized without weighted funding).

Ouchi rests his hat on the argument that Seattle and Houston schools outperformNew York, Chicago, and Los Angeles schools, and, therefore, decentralization with weighted funding is good. Yet such comparisons are meaningless, for many demographic and other reasons. And even if it were appropriate to directly compare student outcomes in New York City and Houston, the most comparable available data, from the Trial Urban District Assessment, or TUDA, report of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, suggest that New York City schools perform similarly to, if not better than, Houston schools.

More generally, the simplistic assumption that decentralization can be a panacea for improving urban education ignores the very complex realities of school improvement. School improvement depends upon a variety of programs, strategic planning, professional development, parental involvement, curriculum development, alignment with state standards, and other educational actions, some of which are more efficiently handled at the district or regional level. Although, in many situations, more discretion over funding should be delegated to individual school leaders, such delegation should be context-specific and should depend on the structures in place in particular districts, the caliber of the local leadership, and the dynamics of the local education reform process, and not on an across-the-board, silver-bullet reform mechanism.

The simplistic assumption that decentralization can be a panacea for improving urban education ignores the very complex realities of school improvement.

A subtext to this discussion is that the radical decentralization approach is likely to pave the way for a system of charter and voucher schools. Although not all the signatories to the recent manifesto endorse a voucher system, the report’s first footnote candidly acknowledges that weighted-student funding would clearly facilitate the implementation of a large-scale voucher system that would allow public funding to flow to private and parochial schools. Vouchers are also a smoke screen for avoiding the bigger issue of ensuring equitably distributed funding to all public school students.

In sum, then, “Fund the Child” identifies some of the serious challenges that schools face in achieving equitable learning environments for all students, but its proposal to utilize weighted-student funding combined with decentralized governance as the single answer for all the funding inequities and inadequacies is simplistic and harmful.

Weighted-student funding cannot stand on its own. Although it might prove helpful in specific circumstances within some large districts, without adequate funding, a more accurate understanding of appropriate weightings for at-risk students, and a focus on the many factors necessary to create the capacity of schools to truly address student needs, the proposal cannot be the solution that its proponents claim. On the contrary, it may well undermine many of the efforts that currently are advancing public education in states across the country.

A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 2006 edition of Education Week as Robbing Peter to Pay Paul


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