Study says school finance system prevents education reform

A six-year, $6-million study of the American school-finance system has determined what many education experts conclude every day-that the system is broken and must be reformed before any true long-term education fix can be fashioned.

The study, funded by the Bill and Melina Gates Foundation, comes just months before Gov. Ted Strickland unveils his school-funding reform plans and just as the Ohio State Board of Education considers a recommendation to add $1 billion to the $17 billion the state already spends on K-12 schooling (see above).

The report, Facing the Future: Financing Productive Schools, recommends that spending concepts such as Weighted Student Funding are far better at targeting resources for the education of individual students. Facing the Future is the work of more than 40 economists, lawyers, financial specialists, and education policymakers. It includes more than 30 separate studies, including in-depth looks at Ohio, North Carolina, Texas, and Washington.

"Like an old computer that has become so laden with new applications that it can no longer do anything well, our school finance system is a product of many unrelated policies and administrative arrangements that, in combination, freeze everything up," said lead author Paul T. Hill, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, at the University of Washington. "We need a new model that is optimized to do one thing, that is, ensure that every child learns what she needs to become an involved citizen and full participant in a modern economy."

Hill and the report's other authors conclude that the current system "is controlled by decisions made in the past, sometimes for reasons and on behalf of people who are no longer in the system, and at such a distance from schools, that educators have scant flexibility to adapt to the needs of the here and now. Teachers and principals, the people whose work the whole system is supposed to support, get complexity and constraint rather than help. In the meantime, the costs of everything are hidden, and people who would like to make trade-offs in pursuit of more effective schools cannot do so."

Thus, when the State Board of Education considers a proposal to spend an additional $1 billion on education, what will that money really accomplish unless the way it is spent is actually changed? While the board's school-funding subcommittee has used some principles of Weighted Student Funding to determine statewide needs, it failed to recommend two critical principles-portability and site-based decision making (see previous article).

Facing the Future makes four recommendations that Ohio's lawmakers need to consider for any meaningful school funding fix:

  1. Drive all funds to schools based on student counts (numbers with disabilities, learning needs, or advanced placement needs, for example).
  2. Link data about the uses of funds and results.
  3. Encourage innovation.
  4. Hold schools and districts accountable for student performance and continuous improvement.

See the report here. For a detailed explanation of Weighted Student Funding, see the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's study, Fund the Child: Bringing Equity, Autonomy, and Portability to Ohio School Finance, here.

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