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July 15, 2004

School study finds more equity after shift to weighted student funding

A finance reform known as weighted student funding enabled two major school districts to shrink inequities and direct resources to pupils in need, researchers have found.


The weighted student funding method, the researchers found, has the potential to ensure that students receive educational resources based on their needs. However, implementation decisions affect how equitably resources are distributed and whether these changes have the potential to improve instruction.


The researchers from Education Resource Strategies and the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education studied Cincinnati and Houston following each district’s shift to the weighted funding method, which allocates dollars per student — but weighted for factors such as special education, poverty and limited English proficiency — rather than the traditional funding system based on school staffing costs.


According to the study, weighted student funding prompted the redistribution of resources from one historically well-funded Houston school to the tune of $991,480, or about 34 percent of its overall budget. On the flip side, a historically underfunded Houston school gained $507,154 or roughly 17 percent of its overall budget.


The study comes amid growing national interest in how money is distributed within districts, especially with the No Child Left Behind Act requiring school-by-school accountability.


“It isn’t realistic to expect every school to meet the same expectations for achievement without first allocating resources equitably,” said Karen Hawley Miles, co-author of the study and president of Education Resource Strategies.


Miles and co-author Marguerite Roza of the University of Washington found that prior to Houston’s switch to a “student-centric” funding system, only about half of its schools were funded near the district’s weighted per-pupil average — the other half were well above or below this benchmark. One year after the student-based reform, however, nearly three quarters of Houston schools were within the weighted per-pupil average.


In Cincinnati, the change was even more dramatic, but required significant adjustment over time of the formula used for weighted student funding. By the fourth year of weighted student funding, every school in the district received the district’s weighted per-pupil average.


Weighted student funding often requires the politically tough redistribution of resources in order to remedy funding inequities. Funding inequities arise, in part, because districts assign staff to schools based on total enrollment — rather than looking at the specific needs of each student.


Advocates of weighted funding say it gives district leaders a more transparent way of seeing where education dollars are going.


“This study shows that weighted student funding can be a means toward greater equity,” said Roza, a research assistant professor at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs. “But it also highlights the difficult choices that leaders must make when implementing the reform.”


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For more information, contact Miles at (508) 276-1161 or karenhmiles@cs.com, or Roza at (206) 612-0810 or margroza@aol.com. The study, “Understanding Student-based Budgeting as a Means to Greater School Resource Equity,” can be found at the Center on Reinventing Public Education Web site: http://www.crpe.org.


Education Resource Strategies is a consulting firm that specializes in strategic planning, organization and resource allocation in urban public schools. The Center on Reinventing Public Education, at the UW’s Evans School of Public Affairs, studies major issues in education reform and governance in order to improve policy and decision-making in K-12 education.