A new method of funding Ohio public schools

Ohio can boast of praiseworthy gains over the past decade in making school funding more equitable across districts. The next step must be to make funding fairer within districts, according to a new report-Fund the Child: Bringing Equity, Autonomy, and Portability to Ohio School Finance-from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (see here). This imperative also gives Ohio the opportunity to modernize its public-education finance system to keep pace with powerful changes in the education system itself.

To mitigate the school-finance inequities that remain within districts and gear school funding toward the realities of student mobility, school choice, and effective school-based management, the report recommends that Ohio embrace weighted student funding (WSF). Weighted student funding makes equity a reality within districts by allocating resources based on the needs of individual students and by sending dollars directly to schools rather than lodging most spending decisions at the district level. It represents a fundamental shift in public-education finance by redirecting money from paying for programs, buildings, and administrative staff at district headquarters toward paying for the education of real children in actual classrooms.

Ohio's funding system is antiquated-as are funding systems in most states. It simply has not kept pace with student mobility, school-level accountability, or historic advances on the school-choice front. Today, one in seven Ohio students is educated in a school other than his or her neighborhood district school. Families, especially in urban areas, increasingly change schools during the course of their children's K-12 careers and more of them select options other than their assigned district schools, options that include magnet schools, community (charter) schools, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) schools. Yet there is no mechanism to ensure that as students move from one school to another, resources move, too.

Under weighted student funding:

  • Dollars follow students to the public schools that they actually attend. A high- poverty student, for example, would be funded in whatever school he or she enrolls in. That money also would move with the student to a different school;

  • Spending is calibrated to each student's needs. It costs more to educate disadvantaged, disabled, and non-English speaking youngsters. WSF allots resources accordingly; and

  • Principals gain the flexibility to spend their schools' budgets in ways that maximize results for their pupils. Funds arrive at schools as real dollars, not staff positions or categorical programs.

Fund the Child was written by expert analysts at the University of Dayton's School of Education and Allied Professions and at Public Impact, a North Carolina-based education policy consulting firm. The report's conclusions and recommendations affirm those of thoughtful groups that have already urged Ohio to move toward weighted student funding. These include McKinsey & Co., Achieve, and the school funding subcommittee of the State Board of Education.

Weighted student funding ensures that the money Ohio spends on public education, about $16.8 billion annually, is spent more effectively across schools. For example, if teachers with different experience levels and credentials were evenly distributed around a district, per-pupil spending on teacher pay would be about equal from school to school. In reality, studies have shown that more experienced and higher-paid teachers tend to gravitate toward more affluent schools (and schools attended by better-behaved children, often in wealthier neighborhoods) as they accumulate experience and degrees. Further, per-pupil funding levels are only loosely related to the proportion of a school's students living in poverty. For instance, the Fordham report shows that despite educating a pupil population (of similar numbers) that is predominantly low-income (84 percent), the Columbus City Schools' Avondale Elementary receives $1,500 less per-pupil than Gables Elementary, where the student population is just 41 percent disadvantaged. Even more glaring, some Columbus schools are funded at a level similar to those in the wealthier suburb of Bexley, while other city schools are funded at a level closer to poorer districts.

The movement toward WSF is a natural evolution for school funding in Ohio. The state, for example, has already moved toward "weighting" through its special education funding, though not toward portability. Still, while Ohio has made a start at targeting education funding according to the needs of individual children, most school dollars are doled out without regard to student circumstances. Even when they are, districts may not channel the additional dollars to the school that a child actually attends. Schools serving the most challenging students and operating in the toughest neighborhoods rarely receive funding equal to the challenges of serving those children effectively.

The principles are simple and they work to create a more responsive system. Just fund education according to student needs, make sure the money follows the child to his or her actual school, and give principals the authority to spend the money for the children in their schools.

Fund the Child: Bringing Equity, Autonomy, and Portability to Ohio School Finance can be viewed and downloaded here.

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