“Backpack” Budgeting: a way to reduce inequity in Utah’s schools?

From time to time I’ve hosted guest bloggers (and I’m very willing to host more.) Today I am posting an article from Lisa Snell, who is the director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank with a strong libertarian bent. And let me note again that I am not myself a libertarian, although I share a tendency to think that market competition often promotes better outcomes.

So here’s her take on an issue now before the Utah legislature. What do you think?

Student Funding Inequities in Utah Schools Make the Case for the School-Based Budgeting Act

This week Michael Clara, a Salt Lake City school board member, filed a complaint with the federal Office of Civil Rights presenting evidence that the most disadvantaged students in the district have too many ineffective and inexperienced teachers. Clara told the Salt Lake Tribune that the school board was told about the inequities a year ago, citing a report presented at a January 2012 meeting that noted, “Students in Title I schools have a five times higher chance of being with a marginal or ineffective teacher.” Since the district distributes resources based on staff positions at the school-level rather than actual dollars, if some schools are stacked with more-experienced teachers and others have a large number of new teachers, this can result in many thousands of dollars difference in terms of actual funding from one school to another. This effectively cancels out Utah’s commendable efforts to equalize funding at the state-level to ensure that every student receives fair funding in the state.

The Utah legislature is considering a school finance reform bill called the “School-based Budgeting Act” that would address these funding inequities found in Salt Lake City and other school districts around the state. The new funding model would attach education dollars to the backs of students and require districts to send 85 percent of state dollars directly to schools in a simple and transparent manner. The bill would also give principals more autonomy to make financial decisions at the school level to become instructional leaders who use their resources to drive instructional improvements.

Urban school districts across the country have implemented similar student-based budgeting models that send dollars, rather than staff positions, to schools. More than 30 “backpack” funding systems (in cities like New York, Baltimore, Denver, Hartford, Conn., and Cincinnati, Ohio, and states including Rhode Island, Hawaii and Indiana) have been implemented. In 2012, Newark, N.J., and Boston moved to a full weighted-student formula where the money follows the child. California, Colorado, Georgia, Louisiana, and Michigan are currently considering state-level school-based funding programs.

Unlike Salt Lake City, where schools with the most disadvantaged student populations have the lowest paid and newest teachers, many districts that have implemented school-based budgeting have increased equity between schools within their districts.

Perhaps the most persuasive case for backpack funding comes out of Baltimore, where more than 80 percent of district dollars started following students to their schools in 2007. Baltimore has made real progress in terms of within-district equity from one school to another. In 2008, only 52 percent of the schools in Baltimore were within 10 percent of the district median dollars per pupil figure. By 2012, after school-based budgeting, 81 percent of the district schools were within 10 percent of the median-funded school. An analysis by Education Resource Strategies found Baltimore to have significantly more equitable funding than several other demographically similar school districts.

Since student-based budgeting, Baltimore has had a wide range of positive student outcomes from improved test scores to a larger number of high school students passing AP tests. However, the most compelling outcomes are the ones that effect the community– juvenile shootings in Baltimore were down by 67 percent, and juvenile arrests dropped 58 percent from 2007-11. Over the same period, dropouts were down 56 percent, truancy fell 30 percent, and high school graduations were up 12 percent. And the Baltimore superintendent Andres Alonso has said that student-based budgeting has been a crucial component of the district’s improvement efforts and attributed many of the improvements to the authority principals now have to make resource decisions at the school level and the financial incentive they have to keep kids in school.

No child should go to a school such as Salt Lake City’s Meadowlark Elementary with up to 67 percent of teachers classified as “ineffective” simply as an unintended consequence of an archaic and inequitable funding model that assigns schools staffing rather than dollars. Most principals have little control over their resources or personnel and can’t hire staff to improve school performance. Rather than forcing desperate school board members like Michael Clara to appeal to the federal Office of Civil Rights to achieve equity for Utah students, state legislators should help stop the shameful financial inequities between schools and work to make the “School-based Budgeting Act” the highest legislative priority to ensure that every student in Utah is funded in a fair and transparent manner.

One comment

  1. Jay Blain

    School based budgeting or so called back funding would do nothing to remedy this supposed crisis. It is how you measure effectiveness of teachers. Most methodologies usually correlate more to zip code and parent income level than anything else, especially when you use standardized test scores.

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