Student-Based Budgeting: Is it Right for Your District?

ERS Releases "A Guide to Implementing Student-Based Budgeting"

System 20/20 Funding icon w colored circle

Student-Based Budgeting (SBB), a.k.a. Weighted Student Funding or Fair Student Funding, continues to gain traction across the country in systems from Boston to Cleveland and Denver, as well as throughout California. It’s no wonder, as the promise of “the dollars follow the student” is an appealing way to create an equitable, transparent, and flexible funding system.

For all of its merits, however, experience shows that SBB is not necessarily right for every district. So before leaders dive into transforming their planning and budgeting processes, we encourage them to stop and ask—is SBB the right strategy for us?

To support districts with this question, we’ve created “Transforming School Funding: A Guide to Implementing Student-Based Budgeting.” Grounded in ERS’ many years of experience working with districts on their funding models, the Guide walks leaders through the key decisions and practical steps to consider in implementing SBB, as well as real-world examples of other districts’ choices. It highlights the conditions that tend to make SBB work—and the ones that might give pause.

For district leaders who are wondering where to begin, we suggest these three big-picture questions:

  1. What role might SBB play in my broader strategy for improving student outcomes? SBB should not be the strategy; rather, it should be part of a broader approach for more effective resource use. This may include improving school design, giving more autonomy to principals, and/or intensifying leadership development. If your district is ready for that kind of innovation, SBB may be a good complement; if it isn’t, SBB alone may not be the right strategy right now.

  2. How do I expect resources to shift as a result of SBB? With SBB, some schools will see a reduction in resources, while others receive an increase. The rationale is that SBB adjusts for previous over- and under-spending and increases equity for students who need resources the most. How will that play out in your district? If SBB would force your district to create an exceedingly complex series of “soft landings” or other “hold harmless” mechanisms, it may be appropriate to consider other options.

  3. What other changes might need to accompany SBB, and how big is the task? SBB does not by itself lead to more effective resource use or improved student performance. It’s crucial to determine up front what else may need to change, and then lay the groundwork for making it happen. For example, with SBB, principals typically need to develop and manage their own budgets and exercise new autonomy over resource use—a fundamental shift from the “traditional” principal’s role. Conversely, the central office shifts from a highly directive role to delivering “customer service” to schools, while data needs to flow from multiple systems into a common planning structure. If those conditions aren’t in place today, moving to SBB likely implies an additional—and often significant—level of change.

SBB can be a powerful tool to increase equity, flexibility, and transparency in a school system. But it can’t do the work alone. District leaders must have the capacity and courage to drive the level of change required to make SBB and its accompanying initiatives work. A visionary leader—someone with the energy, knowledge, passion, and a team to break down barriers while building a strong culture—has the best chance to succeed. We hope our new Guide will be a cornerstone resource for these leaders as they undertake a clear-eyed assessment of their districts’ context and, if appropriate, pursue a thoughtful and ultimately high-impact path toward SBB and a healthier school funding system.

We're hosting an interactive webinar where district leaders can discuss their experiences and ask questions about Student-Based Budgeting. Sign up here for more information.