Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Weighted Student Funding: The Wrong Solution

I'm a Fordham Foundation junkie; if they write it, I'll read it. They're very good at getting national attention for the work they do, particularly when they compare standards across states (see here for history, for example), and I'm a fan of the Education Gadfly Podcast they do.

Their newest report called "Fund the Child: Tackling Inequity & Antiquity in School Finance" is on a concept called Weighted Student Funding, which has five main components (click below for more):

1. Funding should follow the child, on a per-student basis, to the public school that he/she attends.
2. Per-student funding should vary according to a child's need and other relevant circumstances.
3. The funds should arrive at the school as real dollars (i.e., not teaching positions, ratios, or staffing norms) that can be spent flexibly, with accountability gauged by results, not inputs, programs, or activities.
4. These principles for allocating money to schools should apply to all levels (e.g., federal funds going to states, state funds going to districts, districts to schools).
5. All funding systems should be simplified and made transparent.

Yippee skippy. There's an impressive list of people who believe in WSF attached to the report, and it sounds good in principle until you get down to the details.

The main detail that bothers me: under weighted student funding teachers who are higher up the pay scale can get screwed hard, capriciously, with impunity. Here's how.

A lot of the research in the report is based off of the work of Marguerite Roza, who works for the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. Her major area of research has been on the disparity in spending between schools in the same district (short overview here) which in her view is short-changing kids from lower-funded schools.

The trick is, though, that the disparity that usually exists is based on the salaries that you pay the teachers at the different schools. Here's an example from the report (page 16):

To better understand how these policies work, picture a pair of schools, one on each side of the tracks. Each has 40 teachers and 800 kids. On the rich side, the average teacher has 14 years of experience, and 60 percent of the teachers have master's degrees. On the poor side, the average teacher has 3 years experience and just 10 percent have master's degrees. Let's say that the 11 added years of experience are worth $9,000 in salary and the master's degree is worth $3,000. The affluent school would receive $432,000 more than the poor school--just in funding for teacher salaries. That is an additional $540 per student to the rich school, before any of the other factors discussed in this section are taken into account.

I disagree completely. That money isn't going to the school to be spent on kids--it's going to the school to pay teacher salaries. The principal has no say in how that money is spent, there's no way it can be directed to any other purpose than salary--given this, how are the kids at the poorer school being shortchanged?

No one will argue against trying to get our best teachers to the kids who need them most, but I believe using teacher salary to make the argument is the wrong approach. Other elements of WSF make sense, like giving schools additional money for high-need, high-poverty kids, but trying to make salary part of the problem is wrongheaded.

That's a goal of WSF, though. From the report (page 15):

Because some staff members are paid much more than others, one school can effectively receive quite a bit more funding than another it it employs more experienced, and thus expensive, teachers.

There's nothing effective going on here--the school does not receive the funding, period. Perhaps I shouldn't generalize, but in most districts doesn't your paycheck come from the district office? At my school the only money that comes out of the building budget is for the enrichment classes I teach, and I have to do additional work to get that money.

The hits keep coming. This is from page 26, in a discussion about the autonomy that school leaders need to have to make WSF work:

Staff hiring decisions. Choosing the best teachers for the school within budgetary constraints, and managing the tradeoffs between experienced teachers who cost more and younger teachers who cost less.

This should set off warning bells for anyone. The idea that you would look at how much money someone makes as a factor for employment in the school is horrible. Imagine principals cutting high-paid teachers to divert more money to their pet programs and pet pedagogues. Imagine being told after 29 years of teaching music that you weren't going to be welcome any more because your high salary doesn't make it economically feasible any more to have a music program. Imagine getting lunch duty because your principal decided having paras cover lunch was too expensive (you don't have to work very hard to imagine this if you live in NYC).

Am I overreacting? Consider this from page 40:

What happens to teacher seniority under WSF? Adapting teacher seniority rules to WSF will be challenging. If schools must bear the full costs of salaries, and if salaries rise with seniority, schools need to be able to decide the optimal mix of senior and junior teachers on their payrolls. Otherwise, because staff costs make up most of school spending, schools will not truly have control over their budgets. WSF therefore requires that districts eliminate the right of senior teachers to choose their assignments, a right that is in direct conflict with the local autonomy necessary for success.

I see a long, long list of things that could go wrong for teachers here, and I can't see the positives. This may well be one of those fly-by-night ideas that comes and goes with barely a ripple, but if it's not union folk should pay attention.

There are some other small problems with the report that I'll cover in another posting. I'm off to watch fireworks!


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5:05 AM  

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