School funds should follow the child

"Money should follow the child, not the school building," said Ohio Senate President Bill Harris last week. In one simple sentence, the senate president captured the complexity of the debate around Gov. Strickland's school-funding plan in the way that only a veteran political leader could. There is much here to unpack.

First, what does "money should follow the child mean?" In the 2008 Thomas B. Fordham Institute report Fund the Child: Bringing Equity, Autonomy, and Portability to Ohio School Finance (see here) we observed that a system that funds the child incorporates three key principles:

  • full state funding follows the child to the public school that he or she attends;
  • per-pupil funding amounts are weighted according to children's individual needs and circumstances; and
  • resources arrive at the school as real dollars that can be spent flexibly with an emphasis on results, rather than on predetermined and inflexible programs, activities, or staffing requirements.

A system that "funds the child" would:

  • direct more state funds to schools that serve high proportions of disadvantaged children, regardless of where they live;
  • ensure that a student's school receives all of the resources generated by that student, whether the public school is a district school, a magnet school, a STEM school, or a community (charter) school and whether it's located in a poor or affluent neighborhood, in a tranquil suburb or a tough urban neighborhood; and
  • allow school-level leaders and educators to allocate resources in ways that meet the needs of individual children, aligning authority and responsibility in a modern, performance-oriented management system.

By devolving most financial decision-making to principals, school districts would become school-support entities providing financial management, transportation, special education, and other important services. Funding the child represents a fundamental shift in public-education finance and redirects money from paying for programs, buildings, and administrative staff at district headquarters to paying for the education of children in the classrooms where they sit.

This can't happen overnight. Not all school principals are ready to manage their schools in this way, but capable principals can get started immediately while the less-capable ones can get the training and support they need to take on full responsibility for their schools and budgets.

This leads us to the governor's plan and the evidence-based model of school funding. In contrast to funding the child, the evidence-based model purports to show what it costs for each individual school to deliver high-quality instruction to every child and then seeks state funding to meet these costs. Such costs are, according to advocates, directed at schools as a "set of ingredients and services, identified through research that would deliver a high-quality, comprehensive, school-wide, instructional program, and would determine an adequate expenditure level" (see here).

The evidence-based model calls for a menu of staffing and service requirements in each and every school that includes things like mandatory class sizes, administrative staffing levels set per every 500 students, professional development, and other "research-based" school inputs. The underlying assumption behind the evidence-based model is that researchers know what works for every child in every school, and that the costs for delivering such education can be readily identified and quantified.

By claiming that research tells lawmakers precisely what it costs a school to educate all children to high levels, it is then possible to pass legislation that sets spending levels that meet the cost of adequate education for all children. Sounds straight forward, but it isn't. Education and children's learning are far more complicated.

Critics of the evidence-based-model approach argue that there is no scientifically derived funding formula that precisely defines the inputs needed to educate all children to a high level. These experts point to the fact that some evidence-based models call for new spending of several percent while others call for more than 1,000 percent. To understand how crazy this can get consider California where calculations of the cost of providing an adequate education for all students range from $1.7 billion to $1.5 trillion, depending on the assumptions made by analysts (see here).

A fund-the-child model, in contrast, does not claim to know the exact cost of educating all children to high levels. In fact, it accepts that there is no expert or scientific way to set funding levels for public schools. It is elected officials who must lead and determine how much the public will pay for public education. The fund-the child-model is a mechanism for allocating, in an equitable and rational fashion, whatever resources lawmakers make available (balancing those needs and limited resources against the needs of the elderly, the sick, the roads, public safety, parks, and other public services).

Given the deplorable condition of the state's economy and the resulting meager tax collections, figuring out what is needed and how it will be funded is more important than ever. And that's another very good reason for adopting a fund-the-child strategy because it is more efficient with tax dollars.

It is the governor and lawmakers who set the amount they want to devote to K-12 education in Ohio and balance education needs against all the other needs in the state (the needs of the elderly, the sick, the roads, the police, etc.). Whatever amounts they do set should, as Senate President Harris said, follow the child and not the building. Ohio's current funding system is in need of improvement, especially now when not a penny can be wasted. Funding the child is a move in the right direction while so-called evidence-based funding is a costly step back.

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