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District tries new weighted funding approach for equity

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

In an attempt to address inequities, Philadelphia is moving to implement “weighted student funding,” a budgeting process that allocates funds to schools based on students’ needs, rather than primarily on school size. Examples of weighted factors would be poverty and lack of English proficiency.

The approach also aims to give schools more freedom to decide how to spend their money.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who has implemented a version of this policy in three prior districts, says the goal is to make sure that funds reach the students who need them most.

“All schools don’t have the same population, all schools don’t have the same needs,” Ackerman said in introducing the plan. “And I believe that schools, and the people who work there, know best what their students need.”

A citywide planning committee has held meetings since April to develop a new formula for distributing the funds and is scheduled to make its recommendations to the School Reform Commission this fall. Districtwide implementation is planned for the 2011-12 school year.

The committee “is trying to bring up all aspects, all components: what will be given over to schools, what will be controlled centrally, what the actual weights are,” said David Weiner, the District’s chief academic officer.

Deciding what characteristics to give extra weight to is a politically tricky issue that will determine which schools may benefit or lose out on dollars. If the overall pie is fixed or shrinking next year, the new system could be painful for schools that score low in the weighting process.

The committee is also looking at whether all schools should get the same level of budgetary autonomy.

Pilot project

Last spring, 57 schools began taking part in a weighted student funding pilot project. In return for testing out the new school-based budgeting process, in which School Advisory Councils make the decisions, these schools are receiving $150 extra per pupil this year.

One pilot school is Central High School, a top-performing magnet. It is using the extra funds to add a second music teacher, increase library hours, enhance technology, and support a staff member dedicated to professional development.

Central President Sheldon Pavel said the decision-making process was a plus.

“The Advisory Council was as important, if not more so, than the results of the deliberation,” he said. “It really created a buy-in, a level of sharing that was unprecedented. And the people have maintained that relationship as the [new school] year has begun.”

But once the new weights determine how much money each school receives, schools like Central with fewer high-needs students could find themselves on the losing end. Pavel said that he realizes some of the extras added this year may not last.

A few low-performing schools were included in the pilot project. But one large group that stands to gain funds under the system was deliberately excluded – the Empowerment Schools, low-performing schools that already receive extra resources from the District.

Weiner said the District did not want to burden these schools with additional work. He acknowledged that low-performing schools may be given less school-based budgeting power than others, even though this autonomy is considered by some to be a major benefit of the approach.

“That’s a decision the committee is wrestling with right now,” he said. Ackerman has said she believes schools must “earn” autonomy by first demonstrating academic gains.

One leading proponent of weighted student funding, however, disagrees.

William Ouchi, a professor of management at UCLA, says that schools must be given the freedom to make budget decisions if they are going to be held responsible for meeting performance benchmarks. He says that autonomy can lead to academic improvement.

“There’s very little to be gained by only choosing the high-performing schools [for autonomy],” he said. “The students and teachers will do best if they custom-design the curriculum and staffing to their needs. And they need control over the budget to do that.”

One change Ackerman has said she may not pursue is to use actual teacher salaries in the budget. Teacher payroll is the largest expense for schools.

Currently, schools are charged the districtwide average teacher salary for each teacher on staff, regardless of how much the District actually pays the teacher. This salary-averaging system provides a hidden subsidy to low-poverty schools that tend to have more experienced teachers and thus higher actual payrolls. Many high-poverty schools have more inexperienced teachers, costing the District less.

Started in Canada

In the 1970s, the Edmonton, Alberta, school system was the first to enact weighted student funding, and it has since been implemented around the U.S., including in Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington D.C., where Ackerman previously worked. Districts have implemented it in diverse ways, with different amounts of extra funds, different weights for different student characteristics, and various degrees of school-based management. The idea has gained some traction among liberals as well as among free-market advocates who say “the money should follow the child.” But research on whether it leads to more equity paints an uneven picture.

An October 2008 study by the American Institutes for Research found that San Francisco’s plan boosted spending on high-poverty middle and high schools and “showed progress toward closing the [teacher] experience gap.”

But Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker found that in the two weighted student funding districts he examined – Houston and Cincinnati – the distribution of funds to schools was not significantly more directed at student need than in other large urban districts in the same states.

Seattle has abandoned weighted student funding, citing complaints that it was too complex, cumbersome, and decentralized.

Michael Rebell, executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College in New York, worries that weighted student funding can be a smokescreen to distract from the question of adequacy: whether urban districts like Philadelphia have enough money to begin with. That’s a potential pitfall here, where school funding levels per student fall $5,000 below the adequacy target set by the state.

“If you don’t have enough basic revenue in the system, by weighting, even if it’s a fair weight for concentrations of poverty – and a fair weight would be a pretty heavy one in my mind – there’s a concern that you’re fighting over the scraps at the table,” said Rebell.

On the other hand, conservatives often argue that troubled urban schools are poorly managed rather than underfunded. Ouchi, a scholar of management whose focus has shifted to education in recent years, maintains that greater efficiency is the key to successful schools.

Rebell and Baker expressed concern that weighted-funding formulas are often politically driven and not based on research. Cincinnati, for example, has added a weight for gifted and talented students.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan has not yet taken a position on weighted student funding but shares Rebell’s concerns about adequacy. The PFT has two representatives on the citywide planning committee.

“What I have a problem with is when schools are blamed: it’s your choice, you closed the library,” said Jordan. “Money can always be spent more wisely. But when kids in urban centers and rural districts are still in many cases getting 50 percent less … than students in affluent suburbs, I have a very hard time believing they are getting adequate funding. We still have the phenomenon where kids with the greatest needs are getting the fewest resources.”