Flashback to 2006: The struggling Hartford School District sheltered vast discrepancies in per-pupil spending from school to school due to its rigid funding structure. (Like most districts, Hartford funded schools based on inputs, like staff positions and materials.) In an effort to close such gaps (and improve accountability), in 2008 the district established a student-based budget (SBB) model—think weighted-student funding, which funds schools based on actual enrollments and pupils’ specific needs. This report from Public Impact evaluates the efficacy of this shift, based on school-budget data from 2004 to 2011 and principal interviews. Not only did SBB mean that schools received similar funding for similar students (the obvious goal), but principals also felt a greater sense of accountability and reported heightened transparency around school funding. (The redistributed dollars meant that 69 percent of schools received more funding under the new system, potentially coloring responses.) The results from Hartford’s SBB implementation have been mostly positive (in terms of redistribution of funds to needy students and upped accountability and transparency—Public Impact didn’t evaluate effects on student achievement). Still, drawbacks also exist: Hold harmless clauses, for example, keep schools with declining enrollment afloat; schools with fewer than 260 students remained eligible for an extra $265,000 annually. And about 30 percent of the budget consists of “special funding”—meaning that select schools (like magnets) get gobs more dollars. This report offers an interesting case study on SBB effectiveness—though a sober harbinger that weighted-student funding might not cure all our school-finance ills.
Achieve Hartford! and Public Impact, Funding a Better Education: Conclusions From the First Three Years of Student-Based Budgeting in Hartford (Chapel Hill, NC: Public Impact, 2012).