A report released in June by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute sheds much-needed light on a problem that has been largely overlooked in the debates over school finance: funding inequities between schools rather than districts. (“Call for ‘Weighted’ Student Funding Gets Bipartisan Stamp of Approval,” July 12, 2006.)
“Fund the Child: Tackling Inequity & Antiquity in School Finance” highlights the shameful fact that while schools serving the greatest concentrations of needy children require more resources to help students reach high levels of performance, these schools often receive fewer resources or, at the very least, insufficiently higher levels of funding. Indeed, our own research in large districts such as Chicago and New York City over the past decade has consistently found that schools serving the most students from low-income families, the lowest-performing students, and the largest proportions of at-risk students are typically taught by the most inexperienced and least educated—and therefore the lowest-paid—teachers.
We applaud Fordham and the illustrious group of signatories to its report for putting these issues on the table and for proposing a policy, known as weighted-student funding, intended to address these inequities. But before weighted funding becomes yet another widely adopted, poorly implemented fad, eventually consigned to the dustbin of education history, we think it is critical that educators consider some of the more difficult challenges and questions such a policy raises. Here are some thoughts to keep in mind:
• Adequacy and equity must go hand in hand. The Fordham report focuses on the critical issue of vertical equity; that is, ensuring that schools serving the most-costly students have appropriately higher levels of funding, as compared to schools with less-needy students. But the resources available in many large urban districts—such as New York City, which still awaits a legislative response to a state high court finding of inadequate funding— are not sufficient to the task of educating all students to meet high standards.
Redistributing a fixed pot of inadequate funding between schools may be akin to shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Redistributing a fixed pot of inadequate funding between schools may be akin to shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. States or the federal government need first to address persistent inadequacies in funding, particularly for students from poverty and those with special needs. Developing reasonable, research-based estimates of the spending needed to educate students with different educational, emotional, and physical needs, and providing the necessary additional funding to meet these needs, is fundamental to the effective implementation of a weighted-student-funding system.
• Don’t forget the big disparities—across districts and across states. While our research in large school districts has consistently found substantial resource differences across schools within these districts, they are unlikely to match spending differences between districts within states, and between high- and low-spending states. Though spending comparisons across districts and states are complicated by regional differences in the cost of providing equivalent educational services, spending in New York state districts can vary by as much as $15,000 or more per pupil. Meanwhile, expenditures in even the lowest-spending New York state districts are typically well above the average in states such as Oklahoma and Mississippi.
This is not meant to minimize the importance of intradistrict disparities, but merely to point out that schools in high-need districts will continue to be disadvantaged relative to those in low-need, high-wealth districts, and will be unable to attract sufficient numbers of highly qualified teachers, even if we reduce the disadvantage of the highest-need schools relative to other schools in the same district.
• Reforming teacher labor policies is essential. A weighted-student-funding system works primarily on the demand side of the teacher labor market. That is, it seeks to provide additional resources to high-need schools, potentially allowing them to hire more or higher-paid teachers. As long as districts are bound by single-salary schedules and seniority-based transfer rights, though, these reforms do nothing to increase the supply of highly qualified teachers willing to work in these schools. Weighted-student funding must be combined with real autonomy for principals to hire whom they choose and to offer incentives that attract adequate supplies of qualified teachers to the schools where they are most needed. In addition, barriers of questionable value to entry into teaching need to be reconsidered. And, as the discussion above suggests, this also requires that urban and rural districts have the resources to compete not only with other schools in their own districts, but also with their suburban counterparts.
• Get the incentives right. Funding-system reforms present schools with dramatic new incentives, and we can expect intelligent, savvy educators to respond in ways that will maximize the funding available to their schools. Policymakers must be careful, though, to anticipate potential unintended consequences arising from these incentives.
It is likely to be much less expensive, for example, to serve the 50th student with a learning disability than to serve the first. Weighted-student funding may provide a strong incentive for schools to specialize in serving certain groups of students, a result that may be cost-effective but threatens to lead to greater stratification and segregation of students across schools. Safeguards should be built into the system to guard against these and other potential negative side effects.
The bottom line is that improving equity requires addressing these difficult problems and underlying issues before we race to roll out weighted-student funding across the country.
With that foundation, the innovation could be an effective remedy to persistent resource inequalities, particularly within our nation’s largest school systems. Without it, weighted funding may be destined to become another bright idea in education that fails to deliver.
A version of this article appeared in the August 09, 2006 edition of Education Week as Weighting for Adequacy