Date: 
Wednesday, November 26, 2008

School finance systems work against student learning

Seattle, WA - Public school finance systems around the United States are outmoded, failing to support the effective education of America's children.

In practice, the way states and local school districts fund their schools is like an old computer that has become so laden with applications, one added on top of another over the decades, that it can no longer do anything well.

This searing indictment of K-12 school financing is the conclusion of an extensive six-year national study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

We can get schools that will educate all our children effectively, says Dr. Paul Hill, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell, which led and coordinated the massive effort. But we must get rid of the straight-jacket mentality that chokes off flexibility and experimentation throughout our schools.

The study's final report, "Facing the Future: Financing Productive Schools," authored by Paul Hill, Marguerite Roza, and James Harvey, criticizes school finance systems because they are so burdened by rules and narrow policies that they commit dollars with little regard for results, holding adults accountable for compliance but not results.

Hill says it is clear beyond any reasonable doubt that we cannot continue to insist on funding every program, every administrative unit, and every teaching job that exists today.

We need to measure performance at every level, district, school and classroom, and let money and students flow from less to more effective uses. We need to experiment with new ideas and new technologies.

The current system, says the report, is at least as much oriented around meeting adult needs as it is those of the students the system was established to serve.

Observes Hill, "We need a new system that is optimized to do one thing, ensure that every child learns what she needs to become an involved citizen and full participant in a modern economy."

"Facing the Future" offers a four-part action plan to overhaul today's outmoded school finance systems:

  • Drive funds to schools based on student counts; the money would be given to principals to allocate and manage within their individual schools. A weighting formula could be used to provide extra funds for disadvantaged students.
  • Concentrate federal funds on low-income student and direct money on the basis of student characteristics right down to the individual student's school.
  • Redesign states' school finance systems for continuous improvement, demand innovation and continuous improvement, keeping what works and discarding what does not.
  • Base accountability on performance, make superintendents and the chief of state schools responsible for judging school performance and finding better options for children whose schools do not teach them effectively.

The report was produced by the School Finance Redesign Project (SFRP) at the University of Washington Bothell's Center on Reinventing Public Education, with funding by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Authors Hill and Roza, along with a panel of experts, will discuss the report at an event hosted by the Brookings Institution on December 1.

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