Half Past the Month: Education Reform in Two Steps

January 12, 2015

THE EDUCATION PLANS headed for the General Assembly have so many political twists and bureaucratic turns that they cross the eyes. But it could be simple. Here’s reform in two steps, and it doesn’t matter how you pick your state superintendent of schools:

  1. Assign each student a share of next year’s education budget. Let them enroll wherever they wish, taking their education funding with them.
  2. Repeal the Indiana Collective Bargaining Act.

The first step has a formal name, “the Weighted Student Formula,” or, less formally, “backpack funding.” It is so named because the amount in the fiscal backpacks of students with more costly educational needs (physical limitations, learning disabilities, poor home environment, etc.) is correspondingly weighted.

The total dollars remain the same. The systemic change is that students and their parents, in partnership with teachers and building principals, drive classroom learning — not school-district administrators, the department of education, legislative committees or union officials. And neither student nor school need meet the shifting qualifications of an officially defined voucher.

An adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, Lisa Snell, introduced the idea here seven years ago. She edited an issue of the foundation’s quarterly journal, “Government Schools: What’s Got to Change.” (1) To make sure there weren’t unanswered questions, she briefed legislators at two Indianapolis luncheon seminars and met with the governor’s staff and the editors of the Indianapolis Star.

Indiana opinion and policy makers, though, were more comfortable with the status quo. Since then, 25 school districts in the United States have adopted a version of backpack funding with another 15 implementing it fully. Proponents say that graduation rates in test districts rose by more than 10 percentage points from 2009 to 2012 with improvements both in student test scores and retention.

This month, the work of Ms. Snell, director of education and child welfare at the Reason Foundation, was featured in the Washington Examiner in an article, “Backpack Funding Puts Focus on Students, not School Districts.” (2) She explains that the reform is similar to how funding for colleges works: Schools receive funding based on how many students they have.

“A lot of the money doesn’t ever reach the school level where the child goes because it’s not attached to the child and it’s spent before it even reaches the school,” Snell told the newspaper. With funding more directly connected to a student, her argument goes, schools are held accountable. Dissatisfied students can simply take their funding with them to another school.

Other points made in the article include:

Earlier, a two-step reform was suggested, but maybe it could be just one step. Because if backpack funding becomes policy, the experts whom the Indiana Collective Bargaining Act have kept in place for 30 years — both in union and administrative offices — will no longer be required.

That would render the act merely irrelevant to classroom learning, not ruinous of it, as is the case now. — Craig Ladwig


1. Lisa Snell. “Government Schools: What’s Got to Change.” The Indiana Policy Review, winter 2007.

2. Jason Russell. “Backpack Funding Puts Focus on Students, Not School Districts.” The Washington Examiner, Jan. 11, 2015.



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