Last Tuesday morning, I sat in the superintendent’s conference room at Twin Rivers Unified School District and listened to four principals tell their stories about how a need-based approach to budgeting – through a weighted student formula – has provided them flexibility to make better decisions for their schools, and has dramatically improved the way they plan, budget, and engage with their communities. At the same time and just a few miles away in downtown Sacramento, other California districts – not unlike Twin Rivers – spoke to a subcommittee of the Assembly Budget Committee about the potential risks and rewards of the governor’s school funding proposal. Their perception and the reality in Twin Rivers could not be more different.
As I read about the hearing the next morning, I was struck by the fixation on dollars and formulas – who will get more, who will get less. Right now, no one is getting enough in California, and I understand the fears of suburban and rural school districts – the potential for more cuts on top of already diminishing resources is scary. However, this debate needs to be about more than the formula and the dollars, neither of which has been decided upon yet. For me, it’s about what you can do differently by funding based on need, and how that can produce better results. A weighted student formula, distributed on a per-pupil basis to schools, is a powerful lever for improving district program planning and budgeting, school decision-making, and collaboration with school communities. There are tangible rewards for embracing a weighted student formula that hold true, even if you end up with a little less money overall. Twin Rivers is an excellent example.
Every Tuesday I have the pleasure of working alongside a devoted team of Twin Rivers staff as they make a weighted student formula a reality for their schools. When we started this project in 2009, Twin Rivers knew it would be challenging to make this switch in a time of diminishing resources. From their already limited funds, dollars would be redistributed to schools, with some getting more and some getting less. In order to account for the tight budget environment, Twin Rivers begins with the overall funding available and “targets” funds based on student need. They have been phasing in this new funding process, and by next year approximately 70 percent of categorical and 80 percent of unrestricted funds will flow directly to school budgets. Previously, district schools controlled only about 30 percent of categorical funds.
While both categorical and unrestricted funds are calculated and distributed based on student need, ultimately the district will have to “level off” unrestricted funds in order to hold schools harmless for changes in base staffing, which are governed by union contracts; this was a transparent, collaborative decision made by principals and district staff. Funding based on student need is just the beginning. In Twin Rivers the funding formula is part of a districtwide project in pursuit of equity, transparency, autonomy, and accountability, called Strategic School Funding for Results (SSFR), which is a joint project of Pivot Learning Partners and American Institutes for Research that also includes Los Angeles Unified School District.
Twin Rivers has chosen to embrace SSFR as an opportunity to reimagine their approach to school support and decision making within the district, allowing principals much more flexibility and control and embracing a customer service orientation at the central office to support that autonomy. With this flexibility, principals are able to make decisions that best meet the needs of their students. For example, Rio Tierra Junior High School used flexibility to provide extended day and year programming, with transportation – and not just for remediation. Their extended year program began as a summer school program in 2011, staffed entirely by the school’s own teachers, who had co-created the program. Over 200 students (one-third of the student population) chose to attend; the previous year, only 30 students had attended the district-sponsored summer program.
In another example, Madison Elementary is able to prioritize the needs of their English Learner population; they are choosing to hire retired teachers with expertise in literacy development, as needed, to provide one-on-one instruction for struggling EL students and midyear admits, in order to get them up to speed quickly. For me, these examples are equity and autonomy in action. As for accountability, these goals and plans are being measured in school site scorecards for the first time.
We have worked with district leaders to develop tools and strategies that leverage the weighted student formula to create opportunities for all schools, not just those receiving more money. At the heart of the strategy is a year-long cycle with redesigned school planning, budgeting, and engagement activities. This requires many adjustments at the district office, especially for Budget Services and Human Resources; they are tackling these with thoughtful urgency. Under the new integrated calendar, planning for the next school year begins in the previous fall – before budgets or dollars even enter the picture. With a longer timeline, schools and their communities can work together more effectively to address the specific needs of their students, with the knowledge that they are in control of the funds to enact the resulting plan.
Goals and strategies drive the budget development, instead of the other way around. For Principal Craig Murray at Grant Union High School, SSFR has changed the way he interacts with his School Site Council and develops his school plan. He notes that “the engagement level is entirely different and entirely more meaningful.” Grant Union High was also a school that experienced a reduction in categorical funding with the implementation of a weighted student formula. This is why designing for transparency in Twin Rivers has been critical. Principals need to know and understand the real costs and constraints, not just for their schools but for all schools within the district. It’s not each school out for themselves, but rather an ecosystem that they all support and benefit from.
The whole process is facilitated through an online tool called Planning, Budgeting and Allocating Resources, or PBAR. It guides schools through the entire planning and budgeting cycle and in the end produces simple reports. The accessibility and online interface helps school plans to become living documents, not snapshots in time that collect dust on a shelf. PBAR facilitates sharing of information and collaboration across school sites, which, when combined with data on results, help schools develop and share home-grown approaches to improving student achievement. Superintendent Frank Porter sees the shift in his district. “Never in my fourteen years (as a principal), did I ever look at anybody else’s school improvement plans. It just didn’t happen.” Using PBAR, principals can look at other plans and budgets in real time from anywhere with an Internet connection. With 2,100 entries in the last month alone, we can see how they are taking advantage of this opportunity.
I can understand how the concept of a weighted student formula is daunting. As one Twin Rivers principal described the beginning of SSFR in their district, “any time you have something new, there’s anxiety, right?” But, this same principal will go on to tell you how as a district they have worked through this time of anxiety with collaboration and communication. For Twin Rivers, SSFR isn’t just a weighted student formula. It’s not just numbers on a page that tell them where money goes. It’s a model for planning, budgeting, and allocation of resources that validates the district’s commitment to students as their first priority. Because when you boil it down, this cannot happen without first agreeing that students are the priority.
We know that every student has unique needs that require different resources in order to elevate everyone to an agreed-upon standard. Equity does not mean “the same,” and that’s precisely what a weighted student formula illustrates.
Cristin Quealy is the Deputy Director of the District Redesign Workshop at Pivot Learning Partners. Her background includes teaching, school administration, fundraising, and, most recently, managing school operations for 83 schools in New York City.