“That’s a decision the committee is wrestling with right now,” he said. Ackerman has said she believes schools must “earn” autonomy by first demonstrating academic gains.
One leading proponent of weighted student funding, however, disagrees.
William Ouchi, a professor of management at UCLA, says that schools must be given the freedom to make budget decisions if they are going to be held responsible for meeting performance benchmarks. He says that autonomy can lead to academic improvement.
“There’s very little to be gained by only choosing the high-performing schools [for autonomy],” he said. “The students and teachers will do best if they custom-design the curriculum and staffing to their needs. And they need control over the budget to do that.”
One change Ackerman has said she may not pursue is to use actual teacher salaries in the budget. Teacher payroll is the largest expense for schools.
Currently, schools are charged the districtwide average teacher salary for each teacher on staff, regardless of how much the District actually pays the teacher. This salary-averaging system provides a hidden subsidy to low-poverty schools that tend to have more experienced teachers and thus higher actual payrolls. Many high-poverty schools have more inexperienced teachers, costing the District less.
Started in Canada
In the 1970s, the Edmonton, Alberta, school system was the first to enact weighted student funding, and it has since been implemented around the U.S., including in Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington D.C., where Ackerman previously worked. Districts have implemented it in diverse ways, with different amounts of extra funds, different weights for different student characteristics, and various degrees of school-based management. The idea has gained some traction among liberals as well as among free-market advocates who say “the money should follow the child.” But research on whether it leads to more equity paints an uneven picture.
An October 2008 study by the American Institutes for Research found that San Francisco’s plan boosted spending on high-poverty middle and high schools and “showed progress toward closing the [teacher] experience gap.”
But Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker found that in the two weighted student funding districts he examined – Houston and Cincinnati – the distribution of funds to schools was not significantly more directed at student need than in other large urban districts in the same states.
Seattle has abandoned weighted student funding, citing complaints that it was too complex, cumbersome, and decentralized.
Michael Rebell, executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College in New York, worries that weighted student funding can be a smokescreen to distract from the question of adequacy: whether urban districts like Philadelphia have enough money to begin with. That’s a potential pitfall here, where school funding levels per student fall $5,000 below the adequacy target set by the state.
“If you don’t have enough basic revenue in the system, by weighting, even if it’s a fair weight for concentrations of poverty – and a fair weight would be a pretty heavy one in my mind – there’s a concern that you’re fighting over the scraps at the table,” said Rebell.
On the other hand, conservatives often argue that troubled urban schools are poorly managed rather than underfunded. Ouchi, a scholar of management whose focus has shifted to education in recent years, maintains that greater efficiency is the key to successful schools.
Rebell and Baker expressed concern that weighted-funding formulas are often politically driven and not based on research. Cincinnati, for example, has added a weight for gifted and talented students.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan has not yet taken a position on weighted student funding but shares Rebell’s concerns about adequacy. The PFT has two representatives on the citywide planning committee.
“What I have a problem with is when schools are blamed: it’s your choice, you closed the library,” said Jordan. “Money can always be spent more wisely. But when kids in urban centers and rural districts are still in many cases getting 50 percent less … than students in affluent suburbs, I have a very hard time believing they are getting adequate funding. We still have the phenomenon where kids with the greatest needs are getting the fewest resources.”