The United States needs a fundamental change in the way it allocates money to public schools—something that will not be easy to achieve even though it is desperately needed, a bipartisan, philosophically diverse group of policy leaders is contending.
The ad hoc group—including three former U.S. secretaries of education, two prominent former governors, and many other well-known policymakers—says that schools’ budgets should be based on per-pupil allotments that are weighted according to students’ educational needs. And it rejects the widely promoted “65 percent solution,” an approach that calls for districts to spend at least that percentage of their budgets in the classroom.
In its manifesto arguing for what is called weighted-student funding, which its leaders dub the “100 percent solution,” the group says the method differs from prevailing budget practices that often shift resources away from the schools that need them most.
“The key change from traditional approaches is that money is allocated to schools not based on staffing levels or programs, or just the number of students, but on the characteristics of the students attending the school,” the group of more than 70 says in “Fund the Child: Tackling Inequity and Antiquity in School Finance,” a 67-page report released in June. “Students with greater needs (poor, disabled, or English-language learners, for example) receive more money as part of their allocation, allowing their schools to provide the education they need.”
Among the signers of the proposal are Rod Paige and William J. Bennett, who each served as secretary of education under a Republican president, and Shirley M. Hufstedler, who held that post under President Carter. Other supporters include Democrat James B. Hunt Jr., a former governor of North Carolina; former U.S. Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., who once led the House education committee; and John Podesta, a White House chief of staff under President Clinton.
The group also includes former schools superintendents for Cincinnati, Seattle, and San Francisco—districts that have been using the weighted-student formula. The Houston Independent School District started phasing in a program that incorporates many of the group’s ideas when Mr. Paige was the superintendent there before becoming President Bush’s education secretary from 2001 to 2005.
Left and Right
“This is something that appeals to both the reasonable left and the reasonable right,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the Washington-based think tank that organized the effort.
“For each, it solves a big problem without creating a new one,” argued Mr. Finn, who was an assistant U.S. secretary of education in the Reagan administration, in which Mr. Bennett also served.
Under the weighted-student funding model, extra money is funneled to the schools that need it the most, answering liberals’ complaints that education dollars are inequitably distributed, Mr. Finn said.
Former top officials are among those backing what is being called the “100 percent solution.”
U.S. secretary of education, 2001-2005
William J. Bennett
U.S. secretary of education, 1985-1988
Shirley M. Hufstedler
U.S. secretary of education, 1979-1981
James B. Hunt Jr.
Governor of North Carolina, 1977-1985 and 1993-2001
Governor of Michigan, 1991-2003
U.S. secretary of the treasury, 2001-02
Member, U.S. House of Representatives, 1975-2001
President and chief executive officer, Center for American Progress; chief of staff for President Clinton, 1998-2001
Director, Education Trust
Founder, Broad Foundation
SOURCE: Education Week
For conservatives who emphasize school choice, it ensures that a fair share of money follows students who enroll in public but largely independent charter schools—something that’s not happening now, said Mr. Finn, citing research by his pro-charter Fordham Institute. (“Study Finds Charters Receive Far Less Aid Than Regular Schools,” Aug. 31, 2005.)
Some prominent education leaders, however, take issue with the group’s arguments for the method, which doesn’t address efforts to increase the amount spent on schools or how to raise revenues for them.
“When you’re talking about redistributing insufficient funds, it’s not going to do any good,” said Reg Weaver, the president of the 2.8 million-member National Education Association.
A New York City lawyer fighting to increase state spending on schools agreed that while the weighted-student funding formula does address schools’ need to be adequately funded, it fails to explain exactly how it would improve student achievement.
“What we’re concerned about is that people are going to talk about this as the panacea,” said Michael A. Rebell, the director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University. “It’s a step backward because it’s so convinced of what the answers are.”
The report also places too much emphasis on ways that weighted-student funding could supplement charter schools and choice within the public system, and glosses over the benefits of decentralizing district bureaucracies as an argument for weighted funding, said Tom Mooney, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, a 20,000-member affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.
And it fails to explain how districts that adopted weighted-student funding would address issues such as teacher pay, he added.
Under weighted-student funding, the report warns, veteran teachers may be forced to transfer if their schools can’t afford their high salaries because resources have shifted to needier schools, and teachers at schools with bigger budgets may get bonuses not available elsewhere. That would be a dramatic change from current practice that teachers would have a hard time accepting, said Mr. Mooney, who reviewed the report and decided not to endorse it.
“You can’t force-march teachers to create some perfect distribution” of resources, he said.
Regardless of such complexities, states and districts are looking for new ways to finance schools to meet the ambitious goals set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act and state accountability systems, one state official said.
“Accountability is driving people to better understand what kind of investments it takes to close the achievement gap,” said Paolo A. DeMaria, the associate superintendent for school finance for the Ohio Department of Education.
The Edmonton, Alberta, school system in Canada pioneered weighted-student funding in the 1970s under then-Superintendent Michael A. Strembitsky, who endorsed the “Fund the Child”report. (“An Edmonton Journey,” Jan. 26, 2005.)
While the process of determining school budgets based on per-pupil allotments is not revolutionary, it does dramatically shift resources in most districts, said one researcher who has studied district budgets.
Most districts allocate resources to schools based on teaching and staff positions, said Marguerite Roza, a senior fellow at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, in Seattle.
But that method usually skews budgets toward schools serving well-to-do students. For example, said Ms. Roza, teachers with the most experience—and thus the highest salaries—gravitate toward those schools, and parents in those schools are aggressive advocates for extra staff and resources. She chose not to endorse the reportbecause she wants to remain neutral on the topic.
With weighted-student funding, though, teacher salaries are part of schools’ total budgets, and affluent parents face obstacles in arguing for additional resources for their children’s schools. “It’s hard for them to come down to the school board meeting and say, ‘We deserve more than that school there,’ ” Ms. Roza said, because the school with more money has greater needs.
Because weighted-student funding does shift resources, districts that have adopted the method usually phase in the changes to blunt the initial impact, she said.
In Cincinnati, Mr. Mooney said, the district kept the existing teacher-salary schedule. When it came to accounting for teacher salaries in schools’ budgets, each teacher’s salary was counted as if it were the average for the district. That way, teachers did not need to change schools when the district switched to the weighted formula, said Mr. Mooney, a former president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers.
For weighted-student funding to be successful, according to “Fund the Child,”federal and state officials also must embrace it.
But that would require them to change existing funding formulas that are often written to spread money across states and districts in ways that garner widespread support from lawmakers. The current formulas often favor the constituents of powerful legislators, regardless of whether schools in the areas they represent serve the neediest students.
“We’re saying this [weighted-student funding] is the right way to do it, and we’ll see if anyone wants to try this,” Mr. Finn said in an interview. “We’re not naive about” the political challenges, he said.
Targeting ‘65 Percent’
In the political arena, the idea of weighted-student funding counters the so-called 65 percent solution, which is an effort to ensure districts spend at least 65 percent of their budgets on classroom expenses.
Texas and Georgia have adopted the 65 percent rule in the past year, and voters in Colorado and Oklahoma will decide the fate of ballot initiatives on such plans this fall. Promoters of the idea see it as politically popular, and it is designed to benefit Republicans. (“Group’s ‘65 Percent Solution’ Gains Traction, GOP Friends,” Oct. 12, 2005.)
In a June 27 commentary in The New York Times, former Secretary Paige promoted weighted-student funding as the “100 percent solution” and called the 65 percent solution “one of the worst ideas in education.”
Mr. Finn said the 65 percent solution is a bookkeeping exercise that doesn’t force educators to address any of the academic challenges facing schools. “It’s the equivalent of fast food,” he said. “It fills your tummy, but it’s not very nourishing.”
The “Fund the Child”effort doesn’t contradict the goals of the 65 percent solution, said Timothy F. Mooney, the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based political consultant for First Class Education, the nonprofit group promoting the 65 percent solution.
“If 100 percent of the money followed the child to the school,” he said, “you could still put 65 percent back into the classroom.”
A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2006 edition of Education Week as Call for ‘Weighted’ Student Funding Gets Bipartisan Stamp of Approval