Wednesday, June 18, 2008

School funding maze frustrates effort to close student achievement gaps

Seattle, WA - Rather than a coordinated system to finance public schools so that all the needs of different students are met, researchers have documented a confusing, multilayered maze of funding policies and formulas that often work at cross-purposes.

This is the disturbing conclusion of a new report by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington, following a five-year study of how K-12 schools are financed in the United States.

The issue is of paramount importance because today's schools are expected to make sure all students achieve a defined level of performance.

As Congress, state legislatures and educators strive to close achievement gaps by targeting money to support various groups of students with differing needs in the nation's K-12 classrooms, their well-intended plans regularly fail. Why?

Because federal, state and local school funding policies and rules typically do not work in harmony but in conflict.

In fact, where targeted funds originate at one governmental layer, the various influences in the fiscal system can and do have the effect of working at cross-purposes, such that the ultimate spending increments are anything but what the policymakers intended, according to the report.

Put more simply, the report states, when the federal government invests funds to ensure that the highest-poverty schools have more resources, we find local governments counteracting this investment by directing their resources disproportionately to lower-poverty schools.

The report, "What Is the Sum of the Parts? How Federal, State, and District Funding Streams Confound Efforts to Address Different Student Types," is based upon a detailed examination of fiscal data from four states: North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Washington. It recommends some fixes that can lead to a more coherent, efficient and effective funding of K-12 schools:

  • Distribute dollars not purchased resources
  • Channel funds from each governmental layer all the way down to schools
  • Deploy funds as a function of student characteristics
  • Eliminate allocation rules and details that inhibit coherent distribution
  • Track and report all allocations to schools by student need

Written by Marguerite Roza, Kacey Guin and Tricia Davis, the report is part of a series from CRPE's School Finance Redesign Project, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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