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On the Myths and Value of Weighted Student Funding

Leaders and observers across the political spectrum agree that improving education for kids growing up in poverty is complicated business. So when any group of analysts suggests that one single factor correlates especially strongly with student achievement gains, our eyebrows instinctively go up. When that factor is something that we at ERS spend a good bit of time studying—say, the design and implementation of Weighted Student Funding systems—we think it’s worth a closer look.

Last month, the Reason Foundation released its Weighted Student Funding Yearbook. In it, the Foundation reported that “a school district that allocated 50 percent of its budget to the weighted student formula, is nearly 10 times more likely to close achievement gaps than a district that only allocated 20 percent to WSF.”

It’s an appealing conclusion, borne out by the Foundation’s analysis. But as the authors themselves state, correlation does not equal causation. The implication that any single strategy—in this case, ratcheting up the funds put into the WSF formula—is an automatic “do now” for school districts seems to over-simplify a complicated situation.

WSF is not a new idea. It is one strategy for creating a high-functioning funding system that is equitable, flexible and transparent. It’s not automatically the right approach for every big urban district facing low student achievement and stubborn achievement gaps.

For example, the Aldine Independent School District near Houston, TX, has constructed a funding system that distributes resources equitably, with transparency about which schools gets which resources and why, and significant flexibility around how resources are used within schools. Aldine also has a history of relatively strong student performance when compared to peer districts, especially among its sizable population of ELL and low-income students. However, Aldine does not employ WSF, or the level of budget autonomy that WSF districts typically receive.

Also, while WSF determines how much resources should be dedicated to each student, how well resources are used is just as important. It turns out that the job of a principal with autonomy over major staffing or budgeting decisions is very different from that of a “traditional” principal. As the Reason Foundation rightly points out, WSF is most effective when paired with significant autonomy for school leaders. Not surprisingly, districts that have the most success with WSF invest heavily in developing the capacity of principals to make wise resource decisions as well as in district office teams that support them. Districts that lack appropriate principal capacity or the ability to develop it are often better served by finding other ways to increase funding equity.

There is no question that WSF can be a powerful element of a district’s strategy. But it takes a comprehensive approach to unlock the full potential of a district’s principals, teachers and students. We would continue to encourage district leaders considering WSF or other forms of school-based budget autonomy to do so with an eye on the big picture and a reminder that, even in the most favorable circumstances, no single initiative holds the key to fundamental system-wide transformation that benefits all students.

ERS has created a free resource to guide districts in considering if Student-Based Budgeting (also known as Weighted Student Funding) is right for their school system. To receive more publications and tools related to funding, human capital, and school design, subscribe to our newsletter, or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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