Thursday, May 1, 2014

Buried Treasure: A New Look at Inequities in School Funding

In May 2002, CRPE produced a little publication with a huge audience. “A New Look at Inequities in School Funding: A Presentation on the Resource Variations Within Districts,” by Marguerite Roza and Karen Hawley Miles, was the most accessed publication on crpe.org for more than a year. One reason it was so popular was that it challenged a fundamental assumption: that districts distribute funds equitably across schools. Thanks to the work of Roza, Miles, and others, we now know that district budgeting systems can be the source of big resource disparities across schools in the same district.

Using only 26 slides, the authors deftly demonstrated how the school budgeting system used by almost every large school district in the country was broken, and then they explained how to fix it. They weren’t yet using the term we do now, “weighted student funding,” but that’s what they were talking about: assigning dollars to schools based on individual students, adjusted for their needs.

In a subsequent evaluation of weighted student funding published in 2006, Roza and Miles found that the new approach improved resource equity between schools in both Houston and Cincinnati.

But many big city and mid-sized districts still use the flawed budgeting system the authors criticized more than a decade ago. The old system garners strong support from those who benefit most from it, including the most experienced teachers who congregate in the most desirable schools, parents whose children attend schools that get more than their fair share of public resources and enjoy privileged access to the most experienced teachers, and school leaders who use low budgets as an excuse for poor academic performance.

Reporters, attorneys, community-based organizations, and especially leaders of big and mid-sized districts that still use staff-based budgeting should go back to Roza’s and Miles’s original study, to see how to analyze their spending patterns and to see clearly whether or not resources are being distributed equitably.

In the end, A New Look at Inequities in School Funding is not just about resource disparities. It is the linchpin of a more productive school system, in which schools are held accountable for student performance. By allocating district resources more equitably, weighted student funding increases the likelihood that performance differences across schools are the result of better leadership rather than access to more resources. By allocating more flexible dollars instead of staff positions to school budgets, districts empower their better-informed school leaders to choose the mix of resources—more technology in one school, extended learning opportunities in another—that best meets the learning needs of their students.

Without a national shift in the way school districts allocate resources, schools will continue to struggle to deliver on the promise of improved student outcomes.

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