Education Reform That Actually Works (2nd of 4 parts)

November 12, 2007

Indiana Writers Group column for release Nov. 11 and thereafter.
746 words

By Dr. Sam Staley

Indiana, like dozens of other states, has struggled with school reforms of all sorts for decades. Many of them, such as collective bargaining and school choice, have often degenerated into partisan bickering. For an issue that affects so many Hoosiers in so many different ways, the only thing more stunning than the debate’s decibel level may be the lack of results. That may be about to change.

At the core of any education reform effort is the 800-pound gorilla of school finance. In part, this is a result of judicial meddling. Courts have ordered states to equalize their school funding systems in 20 states, and decisions are pending in seven others (including Indiana).

Citizens are suspicious of a financing system that generates largess in some school districts with big factories and expensive houses while districts next door struggle to keep textbooks in the class room. Of course, to some extent, school districts simply need to manage their money more effectively. Far too few school districts put support services out to competitive bid to make sure they get the best quality for the least cost, pool their resources across districts to increase their bargaining power with key suppliers or re-write their collective bargaining agreements to avoid automatic step increases in salaries regardless of classroom performance or effectiveness.

At root is a fundamental problem. Public schools are bureaucracies run — sometimes micromanaged — by local elected officials who are often poorly equipped to hold their administrators accountable for results. The public school system is flawed. We don’t have the right incentives lined up to encourage the innovation and investment in the classroom necessary to get the results our children deserve.

It’s no ones “fault.” It’s not because Republicans or Democrats are in charge. It’s an institutional problem. In short, the system needs changed, not necessarily the people in charge or working within it.

Fortunately, for the first time in decades, a school finance reform measure is being implemented in school districts across the nation with the potential to cross the partisan divide and create the incentives necessary for our teachers and administrators to build and nurture effective classrooms.

The concept is simple: Fund our schools based on whether they are providing an education parents (and students) value. Note the distinction — fund the schools, not the districts. Move the money down to where it can be used most effectively, and give the people closest to the classroom control of it. Each school’s funding is based on the level of enrollment. The more children a school teaches, the more money a school gets. And funding is adjusted for the special needs of the individual student.

The concept, dubbed “Weighted Student Formula,” is showing promise where it’s been applied. The most extensive experiment is in New York City public schools, where school-based funding (and budget control) is being extended to 1,300 schools. Schools funded on this concept in Oakland and Cincinnati are seeing success, both in performance as well as school efficiency. Several schools in San Francisco have reversed performance declines once they moved to this new approach. Nevada changed its state statutes to give every public school district the freedom to adopt this new model.

While the result in the classroom is the most important effect, Weighted Student Formula has other important advantages. Because the funding is tied to the student, the effect is to equalize funding across the board. All students in the same category get funded at the same level, so inequities based on income, commercial tax base, or politics are minimized.

The formula also creates transparency, a benefit anyone who has spent time trying to track dollars in the current system can appreciate. The money no longer goes into an accounting black hole that is almost impenetrable by the average parent. The money follows the child, and goes to the school where she is enrolled, not into a “category” or “program” to be distributed by a bureaucratic formula created by the district or state department of education.

Moreover, because the funding formula is transparent, it allows Indiana parents, teachers, administrators and elected school board members to focus on the thing that they care about most — the quality of education that their children receive in the classroom. As such, this reform should appeal across political parties, ethnic groups and economic classes.

Weighted student formula is a concept whose time has come. It’s up to the state legislature, citizens and our local elected officials to show the leadership that makes it happen.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D., is an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation and a policy analyst for Reason Foundation. He wrote this for current issue of the Indiana Policy Review.


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