School & District Management

Weighted-Student Funding Preferred by Educators, Study Finds

By Dakarai I. Aarons — November 17, 2008 4 min read
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Allocating money to schools using a “student based” or “weighted student” formula requires more work for both central-office officials and school-level employees than traditional methods do, a new study has found.

But the report on the use of the funding formula in the San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., school districts says most educators preferred to use a weighted system.

The report, released this month by the Washington-based American Institutes for Research, also found that the funding method did in fact help direct more dollars toward students who need more resources, such as English-language learners and students with disabilities.

“We realized a student-based funding policy doesn’t solve the problem of inadequate funding. It doesn’t provide money where there wasn’t money before,” said Larisa Shambaugh, an AIR research analyst and the project director for the study. “But at the same time, we did see an increase of the allocation of money to students with the greatest needs.”

Typically, school districts use “staff based” budgeting. For example, for every 30 students, a school may get another teacher, and for every 500 students, another assistant principal.

In addition to desiring greater equity in funding, educators turn to weighted-student formulas in the hope of increasing both autonomy and accountability within schools. The formulas are also sometimes used to help reduce class size, said Jay G. Chambers, a senior fellow and the managing director of the education finance business development group for the AIR.

Researchers for the AIR, a Washington-based nonprofit, independent research organization, spent more than a year working on the study, which included interviews with district and school officials and community members. The study was financed by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

The authors identified nine key considerations for districts when designing and implementing a student-based funding policy. Among others, they include making decisions about how salaries are to be calculated; what student information to use for weighting—such as grade, family income level, and language skills; degree of school-level discretion over the budget; interaction with other policies; and alignment of budgeting and academic planning processes.

The report makes no recommendations on whether certain strategies in the key areas work better than others, as local school administrators will have to take into account the specific needs of their districts.

For example, Ms. Shambaugh said, San Francisco school officials spent nearly a year on a pilot program and involved several interested groups in planning the district’s use of a “weighted-student formula,” starting in 2001.

In contrast, Oakland’s “results-based budgeting” was created and implemented by central-office staff members in a matter of months in 2004 when the district was under state control for poor financial management.

“What we found in the end was that the response was the same for schools in terms of a preference for this policy,” Ms. Shambaugh said. “Whether you do a top-down or bottom-up approach to getting schools to buy in to this policy didn’t make a difference in the end.”

Ownership Stake

As districts face a worsening economy, more may look at funding schools based on the needs of students, rather than traditional models that allocate funding based on student-teacher ratios, the report says.

“I think in one sense, the biggest success that came out of it was making principals and local school decisionmakers feel like they had a bigger stake in the system,” Mr. Chambers said.

But with that larger sense of ownership comes very real responsibilities that both principals and central-office administrators must be mindful of, Mr. Chambers said.

“You want to make sure you have the capacity at the school site to make good decisions. ... The issue is making sure you are providing the kind of supports from the central office that principals need to use the additional decisionmaking power effectively,” he said.

Ms. Shambaugh and Mr. Chambers looked to see if any changes were made in the distribution of experienced teachers among high-need and low-need schools. Because schools with poor children tend to have less-seasoned teachers, and thus cheaper payrolls, some policy experts have seen weighted-student funding as a way to even out the money spent on schools.

Oakland school officials were hoping that by creating a system that gave a subsidy to high-poverty schools, the schools would be able to keep their teachers over time and build a crop of more-experienced educators.

That, however, did not happen.

“The expectation was that they could use the extra money they were getting to provide professional development or better working conditions, such as smaller class sizes to keep the teachers in the schools over time,” Mr. Chambers said. “The incentive has not been as strong as it was initially anticipated.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 19, 2008 edition of Education Week as Weighted-Student Funding Preferred by Educators, Study Finds

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