Districts to radically alter funding

Three districts, including Los Angeles Unified, aren’t waiting for an intractable state government to act on finance reform. They’re immersed in an experiment whose goal is a dramatic transformation of how schools are funded and run. If they stick to their timeline, most money and management decisions will shift from the district office to individual school sites – and to parents and teachers as well – within three years.

Strategic School Funding for Results is a partnership involving Pasadena Unified, Twin Rivers Unified (a new unified district north of Sacramento), and initially more than 100 L.A. Unified schools, American Institutes for Research, and Pivot Learning Partners, a San Francisco-based nonprofit. It’s an outgrowth of work that Pivot leader Steve Jubb did with student-based budgeting in Oakland Unified.

This project will go further in granting individual schools charter-school-like authority and flexibility, while addressing issues of equity and accountability. It will incorporate weighted student funding, a concept talked about for years at the state level, providing more money for low-income and high-needs students.

The timing is actually good for the project. The Legislature has freed up restricted pots of money, known as categorical funds, giving districts (though not schools) more control over spending decisions. And now, with state education funding approaching its nadir, is the moment to restructure districts, so that dollars flow in new directions – away from the central office – when more funding resumes.

Under the current system, principals are held accountable for school results, but have little control over spending – perhaps as little as 1 percent – and, particularly in L.A. Unified, no control over teacher hiring. Salaries comprise 85 percent of a school budget, and, with experienced, higher paid teachers tending to gravitate toward less stressful, higher income schools, those schools often end up with resources. (Categorical funds, geared to low-income students, do balance that somewhat.) The district office assigns dollars to schools based on teachers’ salary levels and programs at the school. Allocating dollars is opaque, with schools and the district office suspecting the other is gaming the system.

When dollars are assigned per student, under a weighted formula, the paradigm flips. Students in low-performing schools already have the right, under the No Child Left Behind law, to choose another school. Suddenly, there becomes an incentive for a school to take low-income students or English learners. Parents of those children gain power, Jubb says, because their children come with extra dollars attached. Schools will have to become open about their goals and  about how dollars are spent, and to show the results with measurements beyond test scores alone.

That’s the concept, and the prospect of gaining more control over dollars is a big lure for principals and teachers. But switching systems will have to be done gradually to avoid disruptions, particularly in schools that benefit from an inequitable system, and it won’t be conflict-free.

Districts will have to determine the exact weighted student formula. Initially, there will be an equal amount per student in unrestricted dollars, with categorical dollars based on student needs on top of that.

Oakland’s experience with student-based budgeting has pushed dollars out to schools more equitably but so far veteran teachers in the better-off “hill” schools haven’t been lured to teach in low-income “heartland” schools. But the latter have gotten more money for teacher coaches and other programs that improve conditions and can help to retain new teachers.

Training principals is critical – and is the current focus of the project. Principals must learn new budgeting tools and commit to an open process, involving teachers and parents, for setting priorities for money they will now control. Some are embracing the challenge, while others are skeptical. Responding to a project questionnaire, one L.A. Unified principal complained that budgeting will divert time helping teachers to improve: “I think per pupil funding is a waste of my time; I didn’t get into this profession to do accounting. It is a nightmare.”

Jubb sees Strategic School Funding for Results as “an accelerator” for larger changes within districts, based on flexibility and innovation. He believes that changes to teacher contracts and to compliance-based regulations will naturally follow. And the Legislature, which has ignored finance reform for too long, will have guidance on directions to take.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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