Education Funding Opinion

School Finance Adequacy at a Crossroads

By Allan R. Odden & Lawrence O. Picus — August 14, 2007 6 min read
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In the 1990s, when “school finance adequacy” began to dominate discussions about school funding, the idea seemed promising. This straightforward way of approaching the subject called for states, as they began to develop curriculum content and student-performance standards, to identify the financial resources needed to get students to meet those standards. Dozens of adequacy studies were conducted across the country. They produced encouraging results and showed potential for moving practice forward. The studies so far have had limited impact on state policy and, in the process, two dueling camps have engaged in an increasingly intense debate over how to measure and fund an adequate education.

—Peter Lui


One camp—which we call adequacy advocates, and which includes those using the “professional judgment” approach to school finance adequacy—argues that adequately funding schools will cost billions more, even in states like Connecticut and New York that currently spend far above the national average. Yet, when states hike school funding, these adequacy advocates return immediately to court, seeking more money. A second camp—which we call adequacy critics—argues that school funding issues have no place in the nation’s courts, and that there is little science to school-finance-adequacy analyses.

So what to do? We take a middle road. Our approach is twofold: First, we review the evidence from research and best practice on what programs work in education; and second, we study schools and districts that have dramatically increased the level of student performance over a three- to seven-year period.

Our review of the evidence has uncovered individual educational strategies that work, and has informed an evidence-based funding model that we advocate. These strategies include class sizes of 15 in grades K-3, school-based instructional coaches as part of ongoing professional development, individual and small-group tutoring as the first intervention for students struggling to meet academic standards, and other successful practices. Our studies of schools and districts in four states—Arkansas, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming—offer examples of what can be accomplished when schools and districts put it all together, and in many cases literally double student performance on state tests.

Simply finding enough money to adequately fund a state’s schools does not solve the school finance problem.

In addition to deploying resources effectively, schools that doubled performance engaged in data-based decisionmaking—making use of both state-level tests and more curriculum-focused, formative assessments. They also engaged teachers in collaborative work centered around the instructional program, produced a professional school culture, and had district, school, and teacher leaders orchestrating all efforts around improving the academic achievement of every student. Our studies have indicated that the types of resources outlined in the evidence-based funding model we propose are very similar to the resources used by these successful schools and districts.

Based on these analyses, we have concluded that a great deal already is known about how to dramatically improve schools. While the country needs more evidence on how to educate all students to levels that require even more than the doubling of performance to attain, the current knowledge base provides a sound foundation for starting now to move toward that lofty goal.

Our work and findings are widely available. In a recently published paper, completed for the School Finance Redesign Project (see www.school financeredesign.org/pub/pdf/wp2_odden.pdf ), we used national demographic data and national average prices to cost out our evidence-based model. The total cost of the model, we found, is close to the national average expenditure per pupil. This means that, today, the nation’s investment in K-12 education is almost enough to adequately fund an education program that can double student performance, although states spending below the average would likely need additional money for their schools, while those spending above probably would not. We plan to publish a second report soon on the cost of this model for each of the 50 states, and have incorporated the core of our evidence-based review in a chapter of the 4th edition of our school finance textbook, School Finance: A Policy Perspective (McGraw-Hill), which was just published.

Simply finding enough money to adequately fund a state’s schools does not solve the school finance problem. An equally difficult challenge is structuring a school finance system to support these evidence-based resource allocation strategies. Today, many state legislators prefer to rely on “block grants” that defer decisions on how best to use educational resources to the professionalism of local educators. Lawmakers still want to know how the money they appropriate is used at the school level, however. Unfortunately, current state and local fiscal-reporting systems do not provide that information. Consequently, legislatures in Arkansas and Wyoming, two states that have enacted school finance reforms based on our evidence-based model, sought our help to determine how schools use the education dollar. Our findings were somewhat discouraging.

When school districts receive revenues through a block grant, local education systems often do not use the funds to implement school-based instructional-improvement strategies that work. They rarely employ school-based instructional coaches—the resource that is key to making professional development work. Nor do they use the funds for certificated tutors to help struggling students, the most effective early-intervention program.

Instead, they use resources to expand the number of elective classes, particularly in middle and high schools (and at a time when student performance in core subjects such as mathematics, science, reading, and writing is both the highest policy goal and the focus of most state testing). They also hire large numbers of instructional aides, even though the same research that finds class sizes of 15 work in grades K-3 also shows that a large class with an instructional aide does not raise student performance.

In one state that targeted money to provide additional services to students struggling to meet performance standards, we found that educators argued for more local discretion—seeking to use those resources to increase teacher salaries, lower class sizes, or establish preschool programs. All of these are potentially effective uses of school resources, but none of them provides the extra help struggling students need to meet state performance standards. Thus, we now question the value of providing complete local discretion as part of a state’s education reform program.

From these studies, we have concluded that there are at least four key aspects of school finance adequacy that we would recommend for future state action:

Identify what it takes to dramatically improve student performance. We believe educators have sufficient information to be specific about this, with our evidence-based model a good summary of that evidence.

Cost out those strategies. The evidence-based model offers a solid place to start, providing states with what currently is the most reasonable adequacy cost estimate. States would be smart to start with this level of resources and make sure this amount is used effectively before adding more resources.

Surround any school finance reform based on an adequacy study with a sharp accountability system. This would hold students, teachers, schools, and districts appropriately accountable for results, so that there is at least some pressure, other than local discretion, to use resources for the most effective strategies.

Establish some constraints to ensure that schools use key resources as part of a strategy to double student performance. These resources can include instructional coaches, tutors, and formative assessments for data-based decisionmaking.

We are convinced that applying these strategies, in combination with the growing body of evidence about what works in schools to improve student learning, would enable schools and districts to dramatically improve student performance over time.

A version of this article appeared in the August 15, 2007 edition of Education Week


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