Districts to radically alter funding

Schools to convert to weighted funding

Three districts, including Los Angeles Unified, aren’t waiting for an intractable state government to act on finance reform. They’re immersed in an experiment whose goal is a dramatic transformation of how schools are funded and run. If they stick to their timeline, most money and management decisions will shift from the district office to individual school sites – and to parents and teachers as well – within three years.

Strategic School Funding for Results is a partnership involving Pasadena Unified, Twin Rivers Unified (a new unified district north of Sacramento), and initially more than 100 L.A. Unified schools, American Institutes for Research, and Pivot Learning Partners, a San Francisco-based nonprofit. It’s an outgrowth of work that Pivot leader Steve Jubb did with student-based budgeting in Oakland Unified.

This project will go further in granting individual schools charter-school-like authority and flexibility, while addressing issues of equity and accountability. It will incorporate weighted student funding, a concept talked about for years at the state level, providing more money for low-income and high-needs students.

The timing is actually good for the project. The Legislature has freed up restricted pots of money, known as categorical funds, giving districts (though not schools) more control over spending decisions. And now, with state education funding approaching its nadir, is the moment to restructure districts, so that dollars flow in new directions – away from the central office – when more funding resumes.

Under the current system, principals are held accountable for school results, but have little control over spending – perhaps as little as 1 percent – and, particularly in L.A. Unified, no control over teacher hiring. Salaries comprise 85 percent of a school budget, and, with experienced, higher paid teachers tending to gravitate toward less stressful, higher income schools, those schools often end up with resources. (Categorical funds, geared to low-income students, do balance that somewhat.) The district office assigns dollars to schools based on teachers’ salary levels and programs at the school. Allocating dollars is opaque, with schools and the district office suspecting the other is gaming the system.

When dollars are assigned per student, under a weighted formula, the paradigm flips. Students in low-performing schools already have the right, under the No Child Left Behind law, to choose another school. Suddenly, there becomes an incentive for a school to take low-income students or English learners. Parents of those children gain power, Jubb says, because their children come with extra dollars attached. Schools will have to become open about their goals and  about how dollars are spent, and to show the results with measurements beyond test scores alone.

That’s the concept, and the prospect of gaining more control over dollars is a big lure for principals and teachers. But switching systems will have to be done gradually to avoid disruptions, particularly in schools that benefit from an inequitable system, and it won’t be conflict-free.

Districts will have to determine the exact weighted student formula. Initially, there will be an equal amount per student in unrestricted dollars, with categorical dollars based on student needs on top of that.

Oakland’s experience with student-based budgeting has pushed dollars out to schools more equitably but so far veteran teachers in the better-off “hill” schools haven’t been lured to teach in low-income “heartland” schools. But the latter have gotten more money for teacher coaches and other programs that improve conditions and can help to retain new teachers.

Training principals is critical – and is the current focus of the project. Principals must learn new budgeting tools and commit to an open process, involving teachers and parents, for setting priorities for money they will now control. Some are embracing the challenge, while others are skeptical. Responding to a project questionnaire, one L.A. Unified principal complained that budgeting will divert time helping teachers to improve: “I think per pupil funding is a waste of my time; I didn’t get into this profession to do accounting. It is a nightmare.”

Jubb sees Strategic School Funding for Results as “an accelerator” for larger changes within districts, based on flexibility and innovation. He believes that changes to teacher contracts and to compliance-based regulations will naturally follow. And the Legislature, which has ignored finance reform for too long, will have guidance on directions to take.


  1. While I agree with the concept of local control, passing buck to local school sites appears to me like the Legislature passing to local school boards when times are bad.  For years the State has defunded education and have let school boards make the tough decisions on program reductions like small class size. Now three school boards want the their local school sites to spend inadequate funds to educate their students.

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  2. How to create even further chaos. Essentially remove the concept of elected representation at district level where property taxes are collected to fund schools.  Direction will come from somewhere, and individual schools will look to some source for guidance.  That will be where the most money will be available.  Choices made at individual school levels will march to the tune of the padded money source.   Another step to nationalizing schools in the name of  “local control” and NCLB.

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  3. This is an important development, involving some seasoned leaders with a strong record for making schools work better by empowering people.  Oakland Unified pioneered this approach, and since doing so Oakland’s students have made impressive gains on a sustained basis.  (The picture on http://publicportal.ousd.k12.ca.us/199410108162459133/site/default.asp helps show what a difference a decade has made.)  The district has also done well at attracting and retaining sought-after school leaders. (see http://www.goinfocenter.org/issues/rbb/ )
    Oakland’s results-based-budgeting model has been an important factor in that accomplishment.  The “funding for results” powerpoint slides do a decent job of explaining how it works.  (http://www.schoolfundingforresults.org/reports/SSFRProjectBriefing20101119.pdf)
    Empowering people and clarifying their responsibility is harder than it might seem, and it can easily be misunderstood — for example, in a down budget it can feel like “passing the buck” — but it is the right direction to go, even in places with as many challenges as Oakland.

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  4. I am deeply involved with a committee charged with figuring this all out within the Los Angeles Unified School District and although the group assembled was originally given the name “Transparent Budget Advisory Committee” (it was recently changed to “Budgeting for Student Achievement”), we have a long way to go before we actually put everything on the table and do so out in the open. For a school district that claims to be so rich in data, we have great difficulty overcoming the culture of fear that is so palpable here that it prevents parents from being considered authentic partners in teaching and learning.
    I am struggling with a number of proposed conventions in this evolving model. In LAUSD, the School Site Council (SSC) – the so-called shared-decision making body of a public (non-charter) school in Ca. – has apparently been identified as the primary group responsible for budget deliberations in this model. In an acknowledgment of same, LAUSD is attempting to improve the training and process planning for SSCs yet doesn’t the SSC have fiscal oversight only over categorical funds? Where does that leave the decisions to be made about other funds? I recently asked for successful examples of such a shared decision-making model elsewhere in California but I’m still asking….. anyone??

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  5. Do we really need business managers in every school?  Good grief!  School boards should see to it that schools get equal funding based on the number of students they have, while ensuring that students with special needs get the extra educational services they need.  The real problem in all this is that school boards don’t have inadequate funding to do this. 

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  6. http://www.hewlett.org/uploads/files/ATaleofTwoDistricts_Final.pdf
    This report is embedded in one of the links Jeff Camp’s comment contained.  For someone unfamiliar with the concept of student based budgeting, it’s a great introduction. It uses the different experiences and approaches of San Francisco and Oakland to tell the tale (pardon the pun) of why’s and how’s.
    Question for those much more knowledgeable than I:  is something that could be beneficial for all districts – even relatively high performing districts, where the demographic differences are all but non-existent?  Achievement gaps still exist in those types of districts, but does the cost of implementing this kind of system outweigh the benefits?  In the end, whether a district uses student based budgeting or not,  the funding the district gets from the state is a zero-sum game….my sense is that it may be opening a can of worms in such a district?

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  7. Will this have schools deciding not to hire the experienced and more costly teacher?

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  8. Interesting discussion. One issue highlighted by @Cathy Lee above is the disparity in pay between younger teachers and their more senior colleagues  – the fear is that school site councils will try to get rid of older (more expensive) teachers and in favor of younger (cheaper) ones. In SFUSD we solved this problem by charging every school the same amount for a teacher – essentially the average cost, across the district, of a teacher with benefits (something like $83,000 this past year). Schools have no incentive to jettison individual teachers on the basis of their cost, but the unintended consequence has been that schools with concentrations of younger teachers are essentially subsidizing schools with concentrations of more senior teachers.

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  9. At the risk of upsetting some folks, I believe that we will begin to allay Cathy’s (and to some extent, Rachel’s) concerns about teachers if  and when we are able to better understand what elements contribute to effective teaching. As a parent, I have had the experience of wanting a “less experienced” teacher in the classroom with one of my children in place of a teacher with considerably more seniority. While the SSC makes budgetary decisions, most parents I hear from in LA tell me that there is little to no time spent examining the other purpose of the Council: the Single Plan for Student Achievement (SPSA) – or evaluating the outcomes of ANY school plan for effectiveness. More money to the classroom will help but until we do a better job investing what we DO get and better determining the needs of the students BEFORE we pay for positions, I doubt we will see the kinds of changes envisioned by those who are driving per-pupil budgeting. I have also been arguing for years that the collective bargaining process needs to be more public. Perhaps if it had been, the conversation around effective teaching and learning wouldn’t be so political.

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  1. Conditions of Education in California | Conditions of Education in California
  2. Student-based budgeting offers hope for systemic change in urban schools | Thoughts on Public Education
  3. New focus on equity in states’ funding | Thoughts on Public Education

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