How weighted funding would work

Districts in which nearly 90 percent of students are either low-income or English learners (such as Long Beach Unified and Los Angeles Unified) will get $3,000 more per student than districts where only 20 percent of students are disadvantaged (like Poway and Irvine) – once the new system of school funding that Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing is fully phased in.

A district with 90 percent disadvantaged students would get $9,596 per student, compared with $6,444 for a district with only a 20 percent combination of English learners and low-income children. The formula assumes base funding of $6,000.

Brown’s weighted pupil funding system would be a radical departure from the current system, in which districts’ revenues differ sharply and often irrationally, based on allocations of dozens of specially designated “categorical” programs, often using unfair or outdated formulas. Brown would end all but a handful of categoricals – special education funding the biggest exception – and reallocate the money based on districts’ concentrations of the disadvantaged.

Brown’s proposal closely matches methodology developed four years ago in a brief (definitely worth reading) co-authored by State Board President Michael Kirst with then law professor and now state Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu and former state Secretary of Education Alan Bersin. The primary difference is that their formula also factored in regional costs of living, while Brown, in an effort to make it simpler, does not.

“We propose a new system that is more rational, more equitable, and, we believe, politically feasible,” the authors said in their introduction. Their method certainly is the former; it’s too early to say whether legislators, once they do district-by-district calculations, will adopt it. However, the intent, by phasing it in over five years, is to ensure that districts won’t get any less money than they receive now.

The formula, as provided by the state Department of Finance, would work this way: **

The state would calculate the total unduplicated number of low-income students, English learners, and students who are are both (more than 80 percent of English learners are also poor) for each district. “Low income” would be defined as eligible for the federal free and reduced price lunch program – more than half of the state’s students.

The formula adds a straight 37 percent of the base grant for districts in which the total number of disadvantaged students is under 50 percent.

Example: A district with 20 percent disadvantaged students would receive 20% times 37% times $6,000, or $444 (7.4 percent) above the $6,000 base rate. For districts with 40 percent disadvantaged students, the amount would be $888.

Districts where more than half of students are disadvantaged would get proportionally more money – an increase of 7.4 percentage points for every 10 percent above 50 percent.

The rationale is that concentrations of disadvantaged students create extra learning challenges. Citing studies, the Kirst-Bersin-Liu brief notes, “Importantly, students in high-poverty schools face a double disadvantage arising not only from their own poverty but also from the poverty of their peers.”

In districts with 60 percent disadvantaged, the premium increases 7.4 percentage ponts to 44.4 percent, resulting in $1,598 per student above the $6,000 base rate.

At 80 percent concentration, the premium rises to 59.2 percent times .80 for an additional $2,842 per student.

At 90 percent, it’s 66 percent times .90 for $3,596.

Base funding is defined in the brief as covering the basic costs of education (“textbooks, safe and clean facilities and qualified teachers and other personnel”). However, K-12 funding has been cut substantially since 2008, when the brief was written. Nick Schweizer, the state Department of Finance’s budget manager for education, cautioned in an email that the base amount may have to be scaled back.

Money wouldn’t follow the child

Other key factors:

  • The formula does not differentiate between elementary, unified districts, and higher-cost high school districts as the current system does. That will likely be one point of contention.
  • For now, at least, per-student funding will be allocated to districts and not to school sites, as some advocates of weighted funding argue should be the case. School site funding has been tried in Oakland and is being piloted in Los Angeles Unified and Twin Rivers Unified under the project Strategic School Funding for Results. It ensures that extra funding gets to low-income schools. But districtwide, weighted student funding can be  harder to administer and can put the squeeze on schools with high concentrations of higher paid, veteran teachers.

“What we are proposing is not overly complex and is doable,” Kirst said in an interview. “It’s a better system than what we have.”

  • Along with special education, the only categoricals that will be excluded from the formula will be federally funded school nutrition; after-school programs, because voters would have to change funding for them under Propostion 49; preschool funding; and money for the Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA), because it stems from a legal settlement with the California Teachers Assn.
  • Districts would have complete flexibility over how the extra money for poor kids and English learners would be spent. They could create financial incentives to attract the best teachers to come to low-performing schools, hire aides, lower class sizes, extend the school day, or focus on staff training. Or they could splurge on football uniforms or spread dollars evenly on needy and non-poor students.

In the mid-’90s, with a spurt in state revenues, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson created the class-size reduction program as a new categorical to prevent the extra money from ending up as pay raises for teachers and administrators.

Kirst-Bersin-Liu argue that preceded the adoption of state curriculum standards and assessments. If districts are going to be held accountable for results, then districts should have autonomy and flexibility to determine how best to achieve them.

Brown calls for the adoption of new, unspecified local accountability measures that would give parents and community members more access to information. The assumption is that they would become a countervailing force to ensure that money is spent wisely.

Advocates for low-income students and English learners will nonetheless argue that there needs to be more assurance – and tighter rules – to ensure that money for disadvantaged students actually will be spent on them.

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** Here is the detailed formula, as provided by the Department of Finance, for those mathematically inclined:
For districts with equal to or less than 50% of students Free and Reduced Price Lunch (FRPL) eligible or English learners (ELs):
• Base grant (BG) + BG * 0.37 * % FRPL or EL
The FRPL and EL counts are unduplicated, so that a district with 20% FRPL only, 10% EL only, and 5% both FRPL and EL would have a % FRPL or EL = 35% (the 5% both FRPL and EL would not be counted twice in the formula).
• So, with BG = $6k and a district with % FRPL or EL = 40%, the formula would provide: 6,000 + 6,000 * 0.37 * 0.4 = $6,888 per pupil.
For districts with greater than 50% of students FRPL eligible or ELs:
• BG + BG * 2 * 0.37 * (% FRPL or EL)2
• For a district with % FRPL or EL = 60%, the formula would provide: 6,000 + 6,000 * 2 * 0.37 * 0.6 * 0.6 = $7,598 per pupil.
• For a district with % FRPL or EL = 80%, the formula would provide: 6,000 + 6,000 * 2 * 0.37 * 0.8 * 0.8 = $8,842 per pupil.
Or putting it in another way that maybe is a little more intuitive:
• BG + BG * 0.37 * % FRPL or EL + BG * 2 * 0.37 * % FRPL or EL * the % FRPL or EL above 50% (or, said another way, % FRPL or EL – 0.5) or 0 if the % FRPL or EL is < 50%.
• For a district with % FRPL or EL = 40%, this representation of the formula would provide: 6,000 + 6,000 * 0.37 * 0.4 + 6,000 * 2 * 0.37 * 0.4 * 0 = $6,888 per pupil.
• For a district with % FRPL or EL = 60%, the formula would provide: 6,000 + 6,000 * 0.37 * 0.6 + 6,000 * 2 * 0.37 * 0.6 * (0.6 – 0.5) = $7,598 per pupil.
• For a district with % FRPL or EL = 80%, the formula would provide: 6,000 + 6,000 * 0.37 * 0.8 + 6,000 * 2 * 0.37 * 0.8 * (0.8 – 0.5) = $8,842 per pupil
A more narrative description of the formula:  It adds an amount equal to 37% of the base grant for each FRPL or EL student until you reach the 50% threshold. Then an additional 7.4% of the base grant is added per FRPL or EL student, on top of the 37% already added on, for each 10% increment above the 50% threshold. So, at 60%, 7.4% of the base grant is added, which grows to 14.8% of the base grant at 70%, and 22.2% at 80%, and so on.

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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