Within school districts there are large differences in funding, with some schools receiving up to 60 percent more funding than others, report researchers at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. “School Communities That Work: A National Task Force on the Future of Urban Districts” focuses on the role districts can play in ensuring high-quality education for all students.
Educational legislation such as “No Child Left Behind” that requires high achievement in all schools has led some districts to reevaluate their uneven funding allocations. One such district – the Cincinnati, Ohio, Public Schools – has devised a reform strategy for improving students’ performance that includes a revised budgeting system.
In the midst of implementing a long-range reform strategy that focused on accountability, Cincinnati school officials realized that schools can not be asked to perform at similar levels if they are funded unequally. Between 1998 and 2001 they gradually and sometimes painfully instituted more equitable funding procedures. The three-year transition to a student-based budgeting formula eliminated the large variations in funding levels between schools. Beginning in 2002-2003, the only differences in school funding were those based on individual students’ needs. Money follows the student to any school within the district.
The district developed a plan to allocate dollars based on student enrollment rather than staff positions or programs. Each student started with a weight of 1.0, but children with greater needs were funded at a higher level. Decisions about added weights were based on students’ needs and the educational principles of the district. For example, administrators believed in the benefits of small classes in primary grades, so the district added 20 percent to the weight of all K-3 students to lower the pupil/teacher ratio in these grades.
To give ninth graders a good start in their transition to high school through orientation and study skills training, five percent was added to all ninth graders’ allocation. Students who were learning English had 47 percent added to their allocation, vocational students 60 percent and gifted students 20 percent. Students with disabilities were given added weight on the basis of their disability.
A gradual introduction
Such a radical budgeting policy had to be introduced gradually. District personnel collaborated with the community to design the policy and then worked to make it understandable to staff and parents. Because schools were held accountable for the academic performance of their students, they were given control over the use of resources to achieve results. The Cincinnati strategy requires that all students meet the same standards, but it allows schools to choose the means to meet these standards. Each school is required to adopt a comprehensive school design from an approved list that fits with the district’s philosophy.
Decisions based on needs of students
Previously existing funding policies were based on differences in school size, organization (magnet programs received more funding) and the age and maintenance needs of school buildings. District administrators asked themselves why funds were allocated in certain ways and what the consequences of those decisions were. They found that these inequities were the result of mathematical formulas, political influence, special interest of an administrator or simply un-examined existing patterns. They found that better-funded programs produced better achievement and that some schools were being neglected – receiving significantly less money than other schools.
Cincinnati educators concluded that to make schools accountable for student performance, more equitable and understandable funding policies needed to be adopted, and schools needed to have greater flexibility in allocating resources to meet their students’ needs. Administrators in Cincinnati now base all decisions on the needs of students rather than programs. In order to transition to the more equitable funding system, extra funding was needed temporarily and a levy was passed to meet this need. The transition was difficult for some schools where favored programs lost money in order for all students to be more equitably served. In cases where schools were losing a significant amount of funding, the district created a transition fund to phase in changes with as little disruption as possible.
“Leveling the Playing Field”, Phi Delta Kappan, Volume 85, Number 2, October 2003, pp. 114-119.
Published in ERN November 2003 Volume 16 Number 8