Monday, October 13, 2003

Researchers launch four-year study to retarget America's school dollars toward student achievement

Seattle, WA - An unprecedented, four-year effort to retarget the nation's education spending begins this week with the help of a $5.2 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The School Finance Redesign Project will send 15 researchers to four states to "follow the money" in different kinds of schools and recommend how to spend more of America's $360 billion annual investment in public education on specific practices that help children succeed.

"Recent federal and state education standards are pushing schools to reach unprecedented levels of student achievement," said Jacob Adams, project leader and research associate professor at the University of Washington's Evans School of Public Affairs. "The big question now is how we help schools get that job done. That's what this project is all about."

Many states now base school funding more on compliance than performance, Adams said. The focus is on how dollars move from one level of government to another and whether funds are spent in the "right" categories rather than how dollars are used to help students learn.

As a consequence, state officials equalize dollars among school districts but ignore inequities within districts - for example, paying the most experienced (and expensive) teachers to teach in high income schools that need them the least. School districts, meanwhile, often spend limited training dollars on speakers or activities that don't help teachers teach or children learn.

The result is that funding levels, teacher assignments and staff training often overlook the thing that matters most: how much students learn and which students learn it.

"Our goal is to follow the dollars into classrooms, to figure out how to make money matter for students," said Adams, who is part of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the Evans School. "We're going to talk about the difference between funding based on political bargaining and funding based on student needs; between 'equal' educational opportunity versus meaningful educational opportunity."

The 10 major components of the School Finance Redesign Project will study specific challenges such as how to fund a high quality teacher in every classroom, how to narrow the racial achievement gap and how to reallocate existing resources to gain better results. Researchers, who plan field work at public and private schools in Washington, Ohio, Texas and North Carolina - states where officials have shown interest in refocusing school financing on student performance - also will collaborate with educators and school finance commissions in several states.

"In order to meet the demands of today's economy, all young people must have access to a high-quality education that prepares them for college, work and citizenship," said Tom Vander Ark, executive director of education, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "Through this analysis, we hope to inform states and schools how to use their resources more effectively and help all students succeed."

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is dedicated to improving people's lives by sharing advances in health and learning with the global community. Led by Bill Gates' father, William H. Gates Sr., and Patty Stonesifer, the Seattle-based foundation has an endowment of approximately $25 billion.

The $5.2 million Gates grant launches the project, for which researchers will raise another $1.5 million. By the end of the four years, the researchers will have produced a set of "tools" - including ideas and procedures - to help elected officials and educators make a difference in classrooms.

Project partners include researchers at the RAND Corporation, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Southern California, Education Resource Strategies, Vanderbilt University, Human Services Policy Center (at the UW's Evans School of Public Affairs) and the Hechinger Institute for Education and the Media.

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