One key issue to consider as Philadelphia moves towards “weighted student funding” – and the major way in which more resources go to better-off schools – is the system of drawing up school budgets using an average dollar amount for every teacher salary regardless of how much that teacher actually earns.
Under the current budgeting system, a school whose teachers earn less than the average does not get any extra money to make up for that fact. Every teacher salary in school budgets is the same, based on the districtwide average rate for salary plus benefits ($90,000 in 2008-09), whether it is for a new teacher costing the District $35,000 or a veteran whose salary alone is close to $80,000 a year
The real cost to the District of the teacher payroll at a school with a stable, long-term faculty could be nearly twice as much as a school that has the same budget on paper but has high turnover and largely new teachers.
More costly senior teachers tend to cluster in schools in higher-income neighborhoods. Schools with the greenest teaching staffs in effect are shortchanged relative to those with a cadre of more experienced teachers.
The impact of having school budgets that ignore actual teacher salaries is apparent when a principal decides to “buy” an extra teacher. The school is charged $90,000 by the District, even if the teacher assigned is a substitute making $30,000. A school that cannot attract veteran teachers is literally not getting its money’s worth.
Using average teacher salaries for budgeting purposes “does cause inequity,” said Joseph Olchefske, the former superintendent in Seattle. However, very few districts that have moved to a weighted student formula have chosen to use actual salaries in computing school budgets.
Olchefske said it is just too complex and jarring – and that some of the resulting imbalance can be corrected in other ways. For instance, by awarding enough additional dollars to each student for such potential learning impediments as extreme poverty, schools with high needs may garner extra funds for extensive professional development, reduced class size, or intensive supports for new teachers.
“I advise people to do average,” said Olchefske, who now consults with school districts on budgeting matters. “The theoretician in me tells me that [using] actual [salaries] is clearly the way to go. But operating a system, actual salary really adds a complexity to it that makes it very difficult to manage.”
Germantown High School Principal Michael Silverman said that if the District went to using an actual salary calculation, his school, with more than 60 teachers, could gain a million dollars that could be used to buy more personnel and services. But he, too, said it would be very thorny to suddenly change this.
“There are so many schools and so many people that the real cost would keep changing,” he said.
Only one major district, Oakland, CA, is using actual salaries in distributing school funds. Houston tried it but gave up after a few years. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his plans to use actual salaries in 2007, but was forced to back off by the powerful teachers’ union, which saw the higher salaries of senior teachers as a deterrent that would infringe on their ability to choose their schools.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan said that he was still researching weighted student funding and the issue of actual vs. average salaries.
He noted that using average salary rather than the actual amount spent on a position “even if it is vacant” does tie up funds that a school could use to help its other teachers.
“I’d look at using actual salaries if it [was done in a way] that there was not a loss to schools with more experienced faculties,” he said. “I’m willing to explore everything.”