Rheewind on school funding

Why is District of Columbia schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, the darling of education reformers (usually including us), eliminating one of the few promising features that greeted her in the D.C. public school system? Is she a control freak, even when she shouldn't be?

Rhee plans to scrap D.C.'s weighted student formula (WSF), which was put in place in 1998 by then-Superintendent Arlene Ackerman to encourage equity in school funding, combined with greater budgetary transparency and school-level autonomy.  Rhee's decision is no mere "budget formula change," as a Washington Post headline would have us believe. WSF is a comprehensive reform and a profoundly important one. By developing school-level budgets based on per-pupil funding amounts that vary with students' needs, WSF is efficient, fair, and transparent. District-centered models (such as Rhee plans to reimpose) are not. They control funding from the central office and allocate teachers and other resources to schools based on arcane staffing formulas, political considerations, or the whims of bureaucrats. They sap control and autonomy from principals--especially ironic in this instance as Rhee is also firing weak school leaders and scouting all over the place for strong ones.

WSF bases its funding levels on the students that each school serves. A pupil from a disadvantaged background, for example, brings more dollars--actual dollars, not dollars in the form of staff members, etc.--to his school. Needier schools get more cash and can spend it on staff, on services, on library books, technology, longer days, whatever is needed.

The type of system to which Rhee would return allocates teachers to schools and then allows budgets to be driven primarily by the sums of their salaries. Thus, a school that employs lots of veteran teachers, who get fatter paychecks, ends up with a larger budget than another school just down the road. (To compound the problem, veteran teachers tend to flock to schools enrolling easier pupils.) Marguerite Roza and other analysts have found that such nuances can lead to huge funding inequities between schools in the same district--inequities that may be worse than those between districts or between states.

It's absurd to see Rhee assert that this change will bring greater equity to D.C.'s classrooms. And if certain schools or students are currently being short-changed, as Rhee says, the WSF "weightings" could be tweaked to better target specific types of students. In a school system averaging nearly $15,000 per student per year, there's plenty of money to do many things. If decade-old WSF weightings aren't suited to 2008, change them.

Why is this crackerjack education executive making this poor choice? The story her office told the Washington Post is that seizing budget control will "help her make good on a core promise: to provide every D.C. school with art, music, and physical education teachers." But if she wants principals to focus on these subjects or hire more staff in these areas, why didn't she just ask them to do so? They work for her (she just fired 24 of them, after all). Is it because she doesn't trust many of those who remain to make wise budgetary decisions? Or is it because she really wants to micromanage everything everywhere in the sprawling system?  

Instead, Rhee has stripped all her principals of their budgetary powers. One wonders how she expects to fulfill the first stated goal of her Year 1 Plan, to "aggressively recruit top school leaders," when she has removed from D.C. principals the authority to manage their schools' resources?  Consolidating power in the central office in this way is a step backward. Every industry other than education seems to have learned that decentralized decision-making, coupled with accountability (and strong unit-level leaders), is the way to develop high-performing organizations.

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