Monday, January 30, 2012


a TopEd  forum  |

  • Merrill Vargo, executive director of Pivot Learning Partners,
  • Eric Hanushek, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution
  • John Affeldt, managing attorney of the nonprofit law firm Public Advocates
  • Gary Ravani, vice president of the California Federation of Teachers.

In next year’s budget, Gov. Jerry Brown proposes to rearrange school funding based on a weighted student formula – a concept that State Board of Education President Michael Kirst fleshed out in a 2008 brief. Beyond a flat grant for all students, districts with large concentrations of English learners and low-income students would get a premium of potentially thousands of dollars more per student. Districts would decide how the money would be used. Under the initial plan, Brown would phase in the new system over five years but would not hold districts financially harmless; doing so would require new money or a  long timeline to implement. As a result,  there would  be district winners and losers. Proponents praise the transparency and equity of the new system. Skeptics have other concerns, as you will read. (See an earlier TOP-Ed post for details on how it would work.)

Four individuals who have given the issue much thought are Merrill Vargo, executive director of Pivot Learning Partners, which is involved in a weighted student formula demonstration project; Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution who has written extensively about school finance; John Affeldt, managing attorney of the nonprofit law firm Public Advocates and a leading voice on education equity; and Gary Ravani, a frequent TOPed contributor who is a retired middle school teacher and vice president of the California Federation of Teachers.

Merrill Vargo: Why now is the hour for a weighted student formula

Merrill Vargo

<<Merrill Vargo

Most advocates of weighted student funding think that the reason to do it is that schools are over-regulated, while skeptics point out that schools already have substantial categorical program flexibility – flexibility that was granted, as it often is, as a sort of consolation prize when budgets were slashed.

This points to the first reason why now is the hour to move to a weighted student approach. Every veteran school administrator knows this drill: When budgets are cut, policymakers discover the value of flexibility and local leaders get to make the tough calls about what programs to eliminate; but when new money flows back in, it comes in the form of new programs. Without moving to a weighted student formula now, economic recovery will inevitably bring new money in the form of new programs, each with its own new regulations. This alone is sufficient reason to argue that now is the hour for a weighted student formula. But there is more.

Even critics of categorical programs rarely point out the economic costs of the way we currently fund our schools. Categorical programs are a recipe for inefficiency: Funding schools the way we do is like paying someone in gift cards rather than dollars. Fifty dollars at Target, $100 at Safeway, $75 at Macy’s…. Somebody might manage to spend money this way without waste, but at best it would be a lot of work. In our current budget crisis, we just can’t afford to make it harder for districts to use money efficiently. And the currently flexibility is only a partial – and temporary – fix. But there’s more yet.

As executive director of Pivot Learning Partners, I’ve had the chance to observe what two districts – LAUSD and Twin Rivers Unified, in north Sacramento – have actually done with the idea of a weighted student formula. Both LAUSD and Twin Rivers have made an important commitment that is implied by the reform put forward by the governor, but not actually included: They have committed to creating a system in which the “weights” dictate not only how much money flows from Sacramento to the school district, but also how much money flows to schools.

Surprisingly to those unfamiliar with education politics, this does not result from the current system of categorical programs; school districts tend to spend dollars intended for poor children on the schools they attend – but they balance this out by spending a disproportionate amount of unrestricted dollars on the schools without poor children. Local politics dictates that everybody gets the same amount, even when some students need more. The commitment by school districts to establish policies and processes to do something else is difficult in any circumstances, but it is far easier when people are arguing only about a principle. Once there is real money on the table, this discussion becomes far harder.

So that’s three reasons why today is the best possible time for a weighted student formula.

Merrill Vargo is both an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, or BASRC) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings, managed her own consulting firm, and served as executive director of the California Institute for School Improvement, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that provides staff development and policy analysis for educators. She also served as Director of Regional Programs and Special Projects for the California Department of Education.

Eric Hanushek: Liberals and conservatives are equally naïve

Eric Hanushek

<<Eric Hanushek

Weighted student funding has become a core idea of both liberals and conservatives. Liberals like the idea because, by their vision, it would push funding to schools that served more disadvantaged populations. These schools have traditionally engaged in less actual spending than more advantaged schools because they employ more rookie teachers, who come with lower salaries. Conservatives like the idea because, by their vision, it will push funding to charter schools that traditionally have received less than equal shares of the local funding for schools. Both groups see weighted school funding as providing more funds to the schools that they focus upon, and both see this as leading to improvements in achievement.

Both groups seem naïvely wrong. The liberals ignore the fact that local schools have no control over salaries of teachers or, for the most part, over the choice of teachers. Thus, the added funding does not allow them to make choices that improve the quality of teachers in a world where the quality of teachers is unrelated to the salary of individual teachers. The conservatives, focused on the funding from the state, ignore the fact that local funding would not necessarily flow with the child under a weighted student funding system, so that redirecting the state funding would not achieve the parity that they seek for charter schools.

Both positions also rely upon an untested view of politics that would lead to improved allocation of resources if only the actual flows of dollars were more apparent and more real. We have no reason to believe that their vision will occur.

The overall idea of weighted student funding – that some students require more resources than others because they require extra educational services – makes sense at the district level. But, hoping that this creates the right incentives if it is taken to the individual school seems naïve.

The thing that both liberals and conservatives really desire is improved achievement of all students. Thus, it is much more likely that rewarding success, rather than relying on a naïve model of political reaction, would work.

Here is the simple idea (developed in a book by Alfred Lindseth and me, Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses) that changes incentives. Provide funding to districts that adjusts the base amount for each student – disadvantaged students, English language learners, or special education students. But, having provided funding that recognizes different needs to provide additional services, reward districts that promote more achievement of their students. And, don’t reward students who fail to attain higher achievement. In other words, provide incentives for greater achievement and do not reward failure.

Schools will not improve until there are greater incentives for improving student achievement.

Eric Hanushek is the Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. He has been a leader in the development of economic analysis of educational issues. His most recent book, Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses: Solving the Funding-Achievement Puzzle in America’s Public Schools, describes how improved school finance policies can be used to meet our achievement goals.

John Affeldt: Money must follow the student

John Affeldt

<<John Affeldt

Putting aside the key fact that the governor’s school finance reform plan fails to address the woeful underfunding of California public education, the governor’s plan should be applauded for proposing a more rational and equitable finance system than the one we currently have. The most alarming distributional shortcoming is its failure to make sure districts actually spend the weighted funds on the needy students who generate those dollars for their districts. Under the proposal, low-income students and English learners become a convenient mechanism for a district to receive more money to spend “flexibly” however it wants — including on students who are neither poor nor learning English. That is very troubling. The extra funds generated by these students need primarily to be directed to the schools where these students are.

Absent a requirement that the money follows the student, the proposal risks being worse than what we currently have. There are too many categoricals in California, it is true. But let us not forget that among the key reasons they originally came into being were to correct the fact that the neediest and often least politically powerful students were being overlooked by unfettered district “discretion.” More than one educator has privately conceded to me that absent rules requiring funds be spent in equal or greater measure on poor or EL students, districts will stray, pulled by pressures from adults — be they influential parents, effective local unions, or administrators with a different agenda.

This is doable. As Mike Kirst noted recently on KQED, Florida has implemented such a system. And, too, the concept is not all that different than requirements found with federal Title I, special education, and Economic Impact Aid dollars that they be spent on the needy students who generated them.

Like the proposed weighted funding itself, requiring that the money follow needy students to their schools can be phased in over time. This would allow districts to readjust their too often inequitable distribution of teacher quality dollars where typically the more experienced and expensive teachers teach the higher-performing students. If more expensive veterans do not want to move, at least the schools with concentrations of needy students will be able to purchase the extra staff that will provide for smaller classes and supplemental supports. In Oakland, which has been experimenting with site-based, weighted student funding, such measures have helped attract and retain young teachers where before they quickly moved on to the more affluent schools. Shoring up resource provision, including teacher quality, in low-income schools is the only way we will be able to begin to close the achievement gaps.  Only holding schools accountable on the back end — after the funds have been spent and gaps have not been addressed — will too often prove too little too late.

John Affeldt is managing attorney at Public Advocates Inc., a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization that challenges the systemic causes of poverty and racial discrimination by strengthening community voices in public policy. He is a leading voice on educational equity issues and has been recognized by California Lawyer Magazine as a California Attorney of the Year, The Recorder as an Attorney of the Year, and a Leading Plaintiff Lawyer in America by Lawdragon Magazine.

Gary Ravani: Rearranging spreadsheets  on a sinking budget

Gary Ravani

<<Gary Ravani

The governor’s plan for weighted student funding, sending more education dollars to districts that have more “needy” (based on English learners and low-income populations) students is intriguing. Obviously, students of greater need require more educational supports to have a greater chance of playing on a level academic field.

As noted in a recent TOP-Ed  piece by Kathryn Baron on the Quality Counts report by Ed Week, compared to most states, California already does a pretty good job in this area: “The state’s … average means that poorer districts receive more funding than wealthy ones on a weighted per-pupil basis.” This does not mean that there are not some significant differences in school funding under California’s “revenue limit income” funding program that favor wealthier areas. If one takes into account the per-pupil funding available to “basic aid” districts, the disparities are even greater.

The problem is that California is relatively equitable in how it underfunds the majority of its students. The Quality Counts report places this state at 47th of the 50 states in per-pupil spending, some $3,000 below the national average in “adjusted” dollars. The RAND Corp., as well as others, cite California’s “unadjusted” dollars expenditure per pupil sinking below the national average in the mid-1980s and sinking lower ever since.

However admirable the governor’s weighted funding plan might be (and it is admirable in principle), this does not seem to be the appropriate time to consider it. Being 47th in per-pupil spending may well be the high point for some time. Even if the governor’s proposed tax initiative passes, it is not likely to improve the immediate school funding situation.

The new funding plan proposes to set a base of $6,000 per student with enhancements based on the number of English learners and economically disadvantaged students. This new variable, and possible cut in funding, is to be calculated by districts already being asked to budget for further cuts next year on top of the cuts from the last few years. The weighted plan does allow for implementation over time, but what are the prospects for improved funding “over time”? Where are there signs, other than the proposed Millionaire’s Tax Initiative that will plug some holes in the eviscerated education budget, that the state is ready to live up to its obligations to its public schools and children?

The equitable and responsible action, before embarking on reorganizing student funding, would be for California to commit itself, publicly and legislatively, to bringing its education spending up to the top tier in the nation, reflecting its international ranking as the ninth largest economy in the world and the nation’s wealthiest state. Only then can all  school districts be “held harmless,” and real improvements to educational programs as well as improved student achievement take place. Without the fundamentals of an adequate educational revenue stream in place, funding “reform” that potentially pits one stressed school district against another stressed school district is all just a matter of rearranging the fiscal spreadsheets on the sinking education budget.

Gary Ravani taught middle school for more than 30 years in Petaluma. He served for 19 years as president of the Petaluma Federation of Teachers, is currently president of the California Federation of Teachers’ Early Childhood/K-12 Council, and is a vice president of the CFT. He chairs the CFT’s Education Issues Committee.

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