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Basing school funding on child needs, not numbers

Origianally published online at the Commercial Appeal, part of the USA Today Network.

As an 8th-grade math teacher in Memphis, I see each of my student’s varied social, emotional and academic needs within the four walls of my classroom. From year to year, as different groups of students come and go, I encounter students with a greater variety of backgrounds than the class that came before them. Many face learning challenges.

Applying that same idea to a school district with over 100,000 students, it becomes hard to imagine the scope of needs that exists between schools from entirely different ZIP codes, neighborhoods, and with their own unique student populations.

For all students in Shelby County to have access to the high-quality public education they deserve, our school district must seek creative ways to address the complex issues that affect our diverse community and its students.

On Aug. 29, Stand for Children and Shelby County Schools (SCS) collaborated to host a panel discussion focused on a new funding model that SCS has begun using in an effort to prioritize equitable funding of public schools. This panel was the eighth installment in a series that Stand for Children started a year ago to bring community members together to exchange views on the most pressing issues facing public education in Shelby County.

The panel consisted of SCS Chief Financial Officer Lin Johnson, Interim Chief of Schools Dr. Angela Whitelaw, Craigmont High School Principal Dr. Tisha Durrah, and Brownsville Road Elementary Principal Charles Newborn. 

The new funding model that SCS has implemented is called student-based budgeting, or SBB. It allows schools to receive money that more accurately reflects the needs of their students and community.

Student-based budgeting provides these additional funds to meet demonstrated academic needs (both high- and low-level learners), address higher mobility, and provide additional support for students in early grades. Funds for student-based budgeting are allocated outside of the federal Title I process.


To put this in perspective, consider two hypothetical high schools, both located within Shelby County and both with the same number of students.

Twenty-five percent of School A’s student population lives at or near the poverty line, and 9 percent of its students have special learning needs. School B has 82 percent of its student population living at or near the poverty line, and 19 percent of its students have special learning needs.
In our current, more traditional funding-model, School A and School B are given a set of staff based on the number of students in the building. This model does not take into account the needs of students, schools, or communities, it just assumes every school needs the same set of staff for a certain number of students.

SBB would address the disparities between the populations of these two schools with a combination of additional funds, based on student need, and greater autonomy for school leaders in deciding how to spend funds allocated for the school. This autonomy is where the school community will see its voices heard and needs met.

Under the SBB funding model, school leaders with proven records of success are empowered to be innovative in their approaches to meeting the needs and concerns of all students, families, and teachers in their schools.

In the traditional funding model, school leaders are held to universal staffing requirements on how they can spend their money. If granted greater freedom, a principal can restructure their budget to meet their school’s specific needs and might:

  • Redesign the school course catalog and designate funds to pay for AP classes that parents have requested for years to challenge their students and prepare them for college.
  • Buy laboratory materials for the middle school science department to meet changing standards.
  • Hire a full-time, licensed social worker to meet students’ social and emotional needs, many of which stem from the effects of poverty.  
  • This is what equity can look like in our public schools. But true equity can only be achieved if the highest-needs schools have access to both increased funding to meet their students’ needs and the flexibility to meet those needs in ways that support the goals of the school and its community.

As it stands, only six schools have student-based budgeting with full autonomy over how their funds are spent. How can we expect more schools to innovate without the freedom to do so?

If SCS wants to improve student achievement and turn around under-performing schools, it must quickly empower those schools in greatest need.

Moving to student-based budgeting is a step in the right direction towards equity for Shelby County Schools students. The question is whether SCS will walk or run. 

Sam Brobeck teaches 8th grade math and Algebra 1 and is a member of Stand for Children. He is a 2018-2019 SCORE Tennessee Educator Fellow and a graduate of Rhodes College.

Basing school funding on child needs, not numbers
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