UW Today

This is an archived article.

December 4, 2008

Six-year study: School finance systems work against student learning

Public school finance systems around the United States are outmoded and failing to support the effective education of America’s children, according to a six-year national study led by the UW’s Center on Reinventing Public Education.

The study likened state and school district funding processes to “an old computer that has become so laden with applications, one added on top of another over the decades, that it can no longer do anything well.”

“We can get schools that will educate all our children effectively,” says Paul Hill, director of the center at UW Bothell, which coordinated the massive effort. “But we must get rid of the straight-jacket mentality that chokes off flexibility and experimentation throughout our schools.”

The study’s final report, Facing the Future: Financing Productive Schools, authored by Hill, Marguerite Roza, a research associate professor in the UW College of Education, and James Harvey, criticizes school finance systems because they are so burdened by rules and narrow policies that they commit dollars “with little regard for results, holding adults accountable for compliance but not results.”

Hill says it is clear beyond any reasonable doubt that “We cannot continue to insist on funding every program, every administrative unit, and every teaching job that exists today.

We need to measure performance at every level — district, school and classroom — and let money and students flow from less to more effective uses. We need to experiment with new ideas and new technologies.”

The current system, “is at least as much oriented around meeting adult needs as it is those of the students the system was established to serve,” the report states.

Hill says, “We need a new system that is optimized to do one thing, ensure that every child learns what she needs to become an involved citizen and full participant in a modern economy.”

Facing the Future offers a four-part action plan to overhaul today’s outmoded school finance systems:


  • Drive funds to schools based on student counts — the money would be given to principals to allocate and manage within their individual schools. A weighting formula could be used to provide extra funds for disadvantaged students.
  • Concentrate federal funds on low-income students — direct money on the basis of student characteristics right down to the individual student’s school.
  • Redesign states’ school finance systems for continuous improvement —demand innovation and continuous improvement, keeping what works and discarding what does not.
  • Base accountability on performance — make superintendents and the chief of state schools responsible for judging school performance and finding better options for children whose schools do not teach them effectively.

The six-year School Finance Redesign Project delved deeply into what is needed to effectively finance K-12 schools. The work produced about 30 individual studies prepared by more than 40 scholars, including top economists, lawyers, policy analysts and specialists in school finance, instruction and educational innovation.

The full report is available at www.crpe.org. It was produced by the School Finance Redesign Project at the UW Bothell’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, with funding by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.