Tom Vander Ark on "School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era"

Founder of GettingSmart.com
Tom Vander Ark

In this post, which originally appeared on the Getting Smart blog, guest blogger Tom Vander Ark analyzes Paul T. Hill’s paper, “School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era,” the latest installment in Fordham’s Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning series. Click here for his analysis of “Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction.”

The
second paper released yesterday deals with the digital learning
implications for school finance. Author Paul Hill leads the Center for
Reinventing Public Education. His work over the last two decades has
done more to shape my views about how to design delivery of public
education than any other scholar. Like the Hassels’ paper, the
recommendations presented in School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era are well aligned with the recommendations of Digital Learning Now.

Dr. Hill lays out in some detail all the ways that the current
haphazard system is “stacked against innovation.” Rather than tinkering,
Paul suggests that states should “start from scratch and create a new
school-funding system.” He suggests a central design principal, “Make
funding for education follow the child to any school or instructional
program in which he or she enroll.”

He recommends that a technology-friendly funding system would need to:

  • Fund education, not institutions
  • Move money as students move
  • Pay for unconventional forms of instruction, and
  • Withhold funding for ineffective programs without chilling innovation.

Digital Learning Now recommends that funding should be weighted,
portable, and performance based.  Paul hits all of these but treads
lightly on weighted student funding suggesting it as an option. Weighted
funding implies that students that bring more risk factors to school
should receive more funding—the reverse of the average situation in
America today where affluent kids typically get more funding than kids
from low income families. A reliance on local property tax makes a Robin
Hood funding formula extraordinarily controversial.

Paul advances the idea of portability in two important ways in this
paper. The first is ‘backpack’ funding which not only follows the
student but also could provide a family wallet that would recognize
differential pricing and enable procurement of a wide range of academic
and extracurricular options. Paul discusses six risk-limiting proposals
for folks that get nervous about parents as decision makers.

The second breakthrough proposal in this paper suggests scraping the
complicated system of local levies and partial state matches for school
construction. Instead, “Funds previously earmarked for facilities and
maintenance could be included in the backpack.” I’d love to see school
districts get out of the real estate development business. If a little
tech and facilities funding showed up with enrollment revenue for
courses, providers could lease appropriate facilities. This would lead
to more school options, more facilities flexibility, and far more
productive use of public space. This transition could be accompanied by
the sale and lease of many school facilities that could raise billions
in funding for operations and program development.

Paul concludes that “A funding system can’t cause innovation: It can
only interfere with it, or let it happen.” I’m not sure that’s true. If
states actually did what Paul suggests here, I think it would cause a
digital learning revolution.

Tom Vander Ark is the founder of GettingSmart.com, CEO of Open Education Solutions, and a partner in Learn Capital
a early-stage learning venture fund.  Tom is a former public school
superintendent, grant-maker, and business executive.  He chairs iNACOL and is a director of several nonprofits including LA’s Promise and Strive for College.

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