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District Design

Funding & Portfolio

Starting From:

Wide funding differences across schools, with unplanned and inconsistent school sizes, program offerings, and locations.

Moving To:

School funding is equitable, flexible, and transparent; and the portfolio of schools reflects student and community need, equity of access, and cost.

What is the opportunity?

System leaders can redesign strategic funding systems to be equitable, flexible, and transparent. Equitable funding systems differentiate funding according to student need, while also ensuring a base from which students in all schools can thrive. Flexible funding systems ensure that resource use is driven by the unique needs and instructional vision of each school, not rigid funding requirements. Transparent systems allow everyone to understand the choices made, building trust and enabling strategic planning.

At the same time, system leaders can create dynamic school portfolios that adjust the sizes, grade-spans, program offerings, and even governance structures of their schools to reflect student and community need and ensure equitable access across students and geography, all informed by cost considerations.


Dig Deeper


Funding is allocated equitably across schools, adjusting for student and school needs.

What is the opportunity?

Take the case of two high schools in the same large urban district. Cutler’s demographics and performance imply that it has higher needs than Kingston, but Kingston receives nearly 50% more funding.

Although districts strive for funding equity—students and schools with comparable needs receiving comparable funding—most districts' funding systems create disparities without district leaders even realizing they exist.

Variation in funding is not inherently bad. Equitable funding is not about providing equal funding to all schools. It’s about giving each school its “fair share” based on its need.

There are four primary drivers that account for most of the unintended variation in school funding:

  • School size—"fixed costs" create higher spending levels in small schools
  • Teacher compensation—schools with higher-paid teachers end up with higher per pupil spending
  • Inaccurate enrollment projections—schools with over-projected enrollments typically have more staff per student, resulting in higher overall spending
  • Ad hoc exceptions to staffing

Explore the following tools and publications to improve equity:


Clear rules guide the "where, how, and why" of the flow of dollars in district and school budgets.

What is the opportunity?

For school districts, it is extremely difficult to forecast from year-to-year, and yet providing funding transparency is critical to ensuring strategic decision-making at the school level.

Districts should ensure that:

  • School budgets include all funding sources and are easy to understand and compare
  • Funding formulas for staff and school resources are widely shared and understood
  • School principals clearly understand what resources they have and why
  • School budget reports include benefits costs for each position

Determining whether the budgeting process is transparent is largely a qualitative affair. Things to consider include:

  • Trace more funds down to the level of individual schools
  • Redesign school budgets to report the total compensation, including both salary and benefits, for all positions
  • Integrate categorical and general fund budgets
  • Document and publish the existing funding rules

A good starting indicator for transparency is the percentage of the district budget reported at the school level.

Tools and publications to improve equity:


Schools have the flexibility to use resources to support their unique needs and strategies.

What is the opportunity?

Our work with dozens of urban districts has highlighted numerous barriers to funding flexibility in schools:

  • School leaders cannot select the types of teachers they need
  • School leaders cannot “trade in” unneeded staff or other resources allocated by the district
  • School leaders have very little leeway in adjusting the school’s resources to fit the school’s instructional vision
  • Flexible resources, such as part-time, adjunct, or contracted employees, are not actively encouraged or supported

Effective school leaders need the authority, capacity, and support to organize their schools around a clear vision for improvement. First steps for district leaders to enable this include:

  • Clearly communicate how much authority school leaders have–it’s often more than they think they have
  • Review school budgets to “unlock” line items and move toward weighted student funding, especially in high-performing schools
  • Provide differential flexibility based on principal performance or capacity
  • Foster part-time employees
  • Collaborate with your state to stop overly conservative interpretation of state and federal regulations that rigidly define resource requirements
  • Open a healthy dialogue with the union to enable innovation and school site flexibility

Explore the following tools and publications to improve flexibility:

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