Student-based budgeting offers hope for systemic change in urban schools

Editor’s note: A number of comments and questions followed my post on an interesting initiative by three districts to shift the authority to make key decisions over spending and other priorities from the district office to schools.  I asked the project’s leader, Steve Jubb of Pivot Learning Partners, to further explain the project.

California’s current fiscal crisis has exposed the state’s education policy environment for what it is: a Frankenstein’s monster of piecemeal regulation and industrial-era labor rules, which is resourced by a byzantine finance system so complicated that almost nobody understands it. As we watch things come undone, we’ve been fed a steady narrative of blame: the unions that resist change, the district leaders who hide money and test our children into boredom, the school boards that can’t get their act together, the “privatizers” trying to take over public education, and, often, the families and students themselves who “don’t care about education.” Finger pointing is not a good place to start the dialogue.

Since my early experiences as a high-school teacher — when my layoff notice and teacher-of-the-year award arrived within a few weeks of each other — I have encountered one example after another of how our 12 volumes and thousands of pages of Education Code make it extremely unlikely that schools and districts serving high-need populations can provide all the resources and experiences required to prepare our students for college, careers and a meaningful life. This is a system problem and it requires systemic solutions; this has been my work and my passion over the last 20 years.

For a year and half, Pivot Learning Partners and the American Institutes for Research have collaborated on the Strategic School Funding for Results (SSFR) project with funding from the Hewlett and Ford Foundations and the Institute for Educational Sciences. Our two organizations support three unified school districts in California (Pasadena, Twin Rivers, and Los Angeles) to design, implement, and evaluate the impact of a comprehensive approach to school finance, governance, and human resource management.

A central component of this work is creating a “pupil-based funding” system. Medium and large urban districts are increasingly turning to this type of resource allocation system to increase financial transparency and to distribute human and fiscal resources more equitably and effectively across neighborhoods that differ greatly in access to resources to support children and families. Most importantly, the project seeks to help schools focus more of their resources on strategies that will support higher and more equitable levels of student achievement at a time when they have fewer dollars with which to work.

In this type of system, most of the revenue a district receives, according to overall enrollment and attendance, follows each child to the school they attend. Schools then fund and staff their programs with the revenue the students bring with them, and they must plan and budget to live within their means. The allocations can be further modified according to a district’s priorities for equity, effectiveness, efficiency and, where appropriate, adequacy (although we are probably years away from the resources we need). Since this is an emerging strategy, what might be considered “best practices” are emerging now within the 16 or so districts nationally that have implemented all or some parts of a per-pupil funding system. A group of them came together for a summit in Baltimore last year to assess progress and share challenges and what they’re learning.

Learning from past failures

The Los Angeles Unified School district tried and failed to implement such a system under LEARN (Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now) and LAMP (Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project) in the late’90s. However, as history shows us, the need and the motive for LAUSD to build such a system has not gone away. While we have learned many lessons from those early attempts, at least four big issues have emerged of particular interest to those who remember LEARN and LAMP:

1.     How will this type of system affect school site councils and what training will they require to play their federally mandated roles?

2.     Won’t this encourage principals to jettison expensive teachers in favor of younger and cheaper ones?

3.     Principals are already burdened with so much, aren’t you asking them to become mini-CFOs?

4.     Will this make the collective bargaining process more transparent and lead to more equitable access to effective teaching?

The first issue is one of great importance to us. Since late September  we’ve been working actively with district leadership to shift to an approach centered on training site leadership teams — inclusive of the school site councils but not singularly focused on that body — to engage the broader community of school stakeholders in developing goals, creating a site plan to achieve them, and setting priorities for the budget. This involves setting a calendar of local engagement activities based on best practices that are year-round and not only focused on the traditional January-to-May “budget season.” From that basis we seek to build a new and different support system by aligning training and budget support to the calendar of activities, centralizing a “training of trainers” model, and decentralizing the delivery of services to local districts and school partners. The focus on local engagement seeks to align all the resources in the school and the community to support agreed upon goals and priorities. Educating children is a shared responsibility, and the actions I describe above are the best opportunity to enact that responsibility effectively.

The second issue is a thorny one. It has to do with the fear that schools will try to get rid of experienced teachers in favor of less expensive, early-career ones. This has not happened to any significant degree in Oakland or in the other districts that we have studied. A per-pupil system does not invalidate existing collective bargaining agreements with which the districts must comply. In fact, the effectiveness of a per-pupil system depends upon wise and responsible collaboration between district leadership and employee bargaining units. In that vein, last month Baltimore teachers ratified a breakthrough contract based on successful reform strategies and collaboration under Superintendent Andres Alonso’s administration. What’s required is a shift by both parties from an industrial-era, adversarial bargaining paradigm, to interest-based negotiation based on common goals for students and raising professional standards and pubic awareness. This is a challenging, but necessary, part of what LAUSD must do now.

The third issue questions whether principals have the time, interest, and capacity to take on more fiscal management responsibilities. My experience in Oakland and elsewhere shows that the decentralization of decision-making authority to schools should be done thoughtfully and collaboratively with principals — what Pivot thinks of as a “user-centered design process” wherein the purpose is to make the system easier, not harder, to use effectively. Achieving greater transparency about allocation of district funds to various centralized services generally does not translate into a greater interest on the part principals in taking on management responsibilities for many of these activities. What principals do appreciate, however, is the opportunity to make more key decisions about staffing, curriculum, assessment and design of the school day so that the school is better able to achieve its instructional goals.

To understand the fourth issue we have to look at the broader context in which Strategic School Funding for Results school districts are operating. It’s becoming more clear that No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on standardized testing and school level accountability ignores substantial systemic problems (finance, labor, and regulatory reform) in favor of policies and practices that blame teachers, families, and kids for problems they didn’t create or had little power to influence. That said, public education now faces a real and serious credibility issue — many administrators, parents and even teachers acknowledge that experience does not equate with greater classroom effectiveness. That’s a problem that can and must be confronted and solved, but preferably with efforts like LAUSD’s teacher effectiveness task force and not by outing teachers with a flawed value-added system as did the Los Angeles Times this fall.

Allocating teacher talent equitably and effectively in a school system is a key part of the Strategic School Funding for Results project. The distribution of teacher talent depends on a shared definition of teacher effectiveness and metrics that all parties agree are valid, reliable, and understandable. Negotiating that, however, takes a lot more time than families and the general public are willing to give it; that means each of the SSFR districts have to find transition strategies to protect the interests of students and families while they work with their bargaining units to address these issues.

Such a thing is in the works, but it’s a slow process and requires lots of work and negotiation to develop. Meanwhile LAUSD was sued over the severe disruption of school staffing that was driven by seniority rights and “bumping” during the last few years of enrollment decline, a phenomenon that disproportionately affected schools serving the neediest students and families. This is what brought on the ACLU lawsuit and subsequent settlement this fall. UTLA is now challenging the agreement. My fervent hope is that all parties will see this as an opportunity to come up with creative solutions that don’t put children and families at further risk.

It is also true that district leaders at the board and executive levels suffer a credibility gap; “the district” is usually the favored target for assigning blame from both the “top” and the “bottom” of the education hierarchy. As the story goes, the central office — what people usually mean when they say “the district” — is inept, wasteful, and can’t do anything right. However, the truth is that school finance in California is like being given a bunch of gift cards instead of simple paycheck — schools and districts can’t just create a budget based on total revenue; they have to spend a lot of time, effort, and money to figure out how to pay for what they need from the appropriate categorical fund. It’s an inherently wasteful system. So one can see how our crazy school finance system helps perpetuate predictable and dysfunctional institutional relationships — and how a budget crisis just exacerbates this. This is why the California School Boards Association started a campaign to reform school finance, and, in a separate effort, a group of California school districts have joined together to create a nonprofit to push for similar reform.

Collaboration is critical

This is all to say that if one can get past the now polarized camps defined by works like Waiting for Superman, one can see that the only way out is through a serious commitment to collaboration and to transforming the relationships within our public school districts. This is what our project is trying to help our three districts’ partners achieve. For example, the pilot school program LAUSD leaders negotiated with UTLA to use a so-called “thin contract” — if it survives politics as usual and the budget cuts — is a hopeful harbinger of what could be true for all schools under the district’s Budgeting for Student Achievement initiative.

From my perspective, our institutions have not evolved fast enough to keep up with the changes in California’s social, political, and economic contexts. Our schools and districts have to somehow do much more with less, and the only way to do that is through collaboration and innovation.

It’s time to face the brutal facts: Our current system of financing schools is deeply flawed, and our districts are not waiting for Superman to tackle some of these issues now through Strategic School Funding For Results. What we are waiting for is for our national and state lawmakers to tackle finance, labor, and regulatory reform with a systems lens and to stop blaming people for system problems.

Steve Jubb directs Pivot Learning Partners’ District Redesign Workshop, an R&D effort to develop new approaches to the redesign of public school systems. He is also the founder of WY5 (Who’re Your Five?), an innovative, learner-centered platform for online and “real time” mentoring and goal-oriented social networking. He previously served 11 years as executive director of the nonprofit Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools (BayCES), where he worked with community, school, and central office leaders to create more than 50 new schools in low-income neighborhoods. While at BayCES Steve also helped design and lead Expect Success, a $43M redesign of the Oakland Unified District.