Inadequate understanding

When Fordham released Fund the Child, a manifesto proposing weighted student funding (WSF), we knew the concept was attracting unaccustomed sleeping companions. After all, WSF's supporters include those seeking better resources for poor and minority students, those wishing to foster innovations such as charter schools, and those aiming to empower school leaders. The manifesto's list of signatories attests to that diversity.

Big though the WSF umbrella is, it doesn't shelter everyone who simply wants more funding for needy schools. Consider the so-called "adequacy" proponents who have, with some success, taken to the courts to impose increased public-school spending on their states. Most vocal among this crowd is Michael Rebell, now at Teachers College and coauthor (with Bruce Baker) of a recent Education Week commentary that denounced WSF as a "silver bullet" idea and dismissed its potential to empower principals.

Not only do these charges misrepresent WSF, but those hurling them do few favors for the cause of equitable school funding. Even if courts force greater spending on schools in certain states, cities, or districts, today's dispersal mechanisms will continue to channel the dollars to the best-funded and least-needy schools. Worse, many of those dollars will be used in ways that have little to do with student achievement. (Kansas City famously spent its $2 billion windfall on such amenities as an arboretum, a planetarium, and a wildlife refuge [see here].)

The truth is that absent fundamental reform in how we distribute and deploy education dollars, additional funding will do little good. WSF provides sunlight to education budgets, as layers of categorical funds and complicated formulas are replaced by a straight forward methodology--a base funding amount per pupil with additional weights for certain types of needy students. All, or almost all, of that money is portable, i.e. accompanies that particular student to the school of his/her choice. (Some manifesto signers would extend that range to include private schools.) This helps ensure that funds are actually directed toward students in the ways policy makers intend.

Without such reform, savvy principals can lobby their district office for greater resources, and their schools will receive newer buildings, more special programs, and better service from central-office helpers and consultants. The heck with the kids in other schools, however needy or ill-served they may be.

Without such reform, school-level budgets could continue to ignore big differences in teacher salaries. Because schools in most places now receive their human-resource "dollars" in the form of numbers of teachers, and because districts typically use an average salary to calculate how many "dollars" each teacher is worth (without taking into account how much individual instructors are actually paid), schools with the same number of teachers are assumed to be receiving the same "dollar" resources.

Almost never does that turn out to be true. If school A has 20 young teachers with $30,000 salaries and school B has 20 veteran teachers with $70,000 salaries, the schools' "dollar" resources are certainly not the same. In fact, the funding gap in that example would be $800,000. (And even if veteran teachers aren't necessarily any better than new teachers [see below], poor schools shouldn't have to come up short in terms of funding.) Without changes in how teachers and dollars are allocated, pouring more money into teacher pay will benefit adults, but not necessarily students. WSF can ensure that all schools receive the dollars they deserve.

And without such reform, huge inequities in funding will remain between high-poverty or high-minority schools and their wealthy, white counterparts--even within the same district. Marguerite Rosa and Paul Hill showed in a 2002 analysis of Baltimore City that teachers at a high-poverty school received almost $20,000 less than those at another district school.  A variety of reforms might help ensure that these shortfalls are corrected, but until dollars are allocated to schools based on the needs of individual children, we have little hope of ensuring truly fair funding of schools, where extra resources reach the students who need extra help.

Adequacy proponents are smart enough to pay lip service to the truth that money alone is no panacea; Rebell lists "strategic planning, professional development, parental involvement, curriculum development, alignment with state standards, and other educational actions" as steps that struggling districts should take. In reality, however, adequacy lawsuits and their proponents--and the judges who sometimes concur with them--have no means for ensuring these steps are taken. They offer only the promise that more money will be spent.

By arguing for ever more money, adequacy advocates risk numbing the public to the basic changes that are needed in how we fund and run our schools. Which can include getting far greater bang for the current bucks. The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, convened by the National Center on Education and the Economy, eloquently makes this case in Tough Choices for Tough Times, released last week (see here): "The core problem is that our education and training systems were built for another era, an era in which most workers needed only a rudimentary education. It is not possible to get where we have to go by patching that system. There is not enough money available at any level of our intergovernmental system to fix this problem by spending more on the system we have. We can get where we must go only by fixing the system itself."

Among this commission's many sound proposals: adopting WSF.

Taxpayers will eventually grow weary of funding a broken system. WSF presents an opportunity for fundamental repair. Anyone who believes that America's neediest students deserve better should support this idea.

Eric Osberg is a Vice President and Treasurer at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute