The Weighted Student Formula: Is There a Better Way to Fund Indiana Education?
Indiana Writers Group column for release March 14 and thereafter
by Lisa Snell
In Indiana, like most states, school funding is not attached to the child; families cannot easily choose between local public schools based on quality. As a consequence, public schools have no incentive to improve because children have no right of exit to a better-performing school.
While some public schools have experienced modest improvement in recent years, thousands of Hoosier children continue to languish in low-performing public schools despite continual reforms that have included funding increases, smaller class sizes, changes in teacher training and staff reconstitution.
Indiana’s children need meaningful public school reform where school financing is attached to the backs of children and public school enrollment is based on choice, not residential assignment. School funding needs to be put into the backpacks of children and follow them into the schools of their choice. Public school principals need to control resources at the local level in order to make informed decisions about how best to spend resources on the unique needs of their own students.
Offering parents and students “buying power” will help inspire excellence in all public schools, especially if they have to compete for students in order to receive funding. The school finance mechanism known as Weighted Student Formula (WSF) could help create more school choice, more equitable school financing and better-performing schools in the state of Indiana.
The Weighted Student Formula has demonstrating results in equalizing funding for all students, closing the achievement gap and improving high school outcomes in a handful of urban school districts across the United States. This school finance mechanism seems especially suited for Indiana where the majority of school funding is already allocated at the state level.
A former superintendent of schools, Arlene Ackerman, introduced San Francisco city schools to the Weighted Student Formula, which requires money to follow students to the schools they choose while guaranteeing that schools with harder-to-educate children (low-income students, English learners, low achievers) get more funds. Ackerman also introduced site-based budgeting, so that school communities — not the central office — determine how to spend their money. Finally, she created a true open-enrollment student assignment system that gives parents the right to choose their children’s schools. And parents are taking advantage of the system; more than 40 percent of the city’s children now attend schools outside their neighborhoods.
With students having the freedom to move, the city’s public schools now have incentives to differentiate themselves. Once cookie-cutter public schools now include Chinese, Spanish and Tagalog language immersion schools; college-preparatory schools; performing-arts schools that collaborate with an urban ballet and symphony; schools specializing in math and technology; traditional neighborhood schools; and a year-round school based on multiple-intelligence theory. Each San Francisco public school is unique. And the number of students, school hours, teaching styles and program choices vary from site to site.
If Indiana is not ready to institute WSF statewide, an interim solution would be to offer school districts a financial incentive to pilot the Weighted Student Formula concept within a school corporation. This financing mechanism would be especially important for those Indiana districts with higher achievement gaps, higher concentrations of school dropouts and a greater need to weight funding toward individual student characteristics.
Indiana could offer waivers to state-level categorical mandates that limit discretionary funding to those districts willing to implement weighted-student formula financing schemes with principal control and public-school choice.
Obviously, creating high standards alone is not enough to solve Indiana’s school performance issues or inequities in school funding. Individual low-performing Indiana schools may need competition from higher-performing schools to give them a financial incentive to either perform better or let the children go.
In the specific case of chronically low-performing schools, students need more than high standards — they need access to higher-performing schools and a right of exit out of their inadequate schools. Indiana needs to reform its school finance system using a Weighted Student Formula to offer public schools the incentive to better serve each child based on individual characteristics.
Lisa Snell, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is director of education and child welfare policy at Reason Foundation in Los Angeles. This is adapted from a larger work in the winter issue of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review.