Survival-Of-Fittest School Funding A Mistake

Aliyya Swaby Photo (Opinion) The New Haven Board of Education is currently considering a Weighted Student Funding (WSF) model for the New Haven Public Schools.  WSF strives for funding equity among schools by allocating resources on a dollars-per-student basis, with certain students “weighted” more heavily according to instructional needs (for example, special education).

WSF doesn’t address actual inequity well, and it may sacrifice coherent functioning of individual schools.

The metric of per-student funding equity is a misleading one, distracting from true educational equity in practice.  The quest for appropriate weights distracts from the bigger goal: equity in the actual educational experience, which is not solved by funding alone.  Even if the district could achieve the perfect mix of weights, such “equity” is then completely negated by school-specific grants and magnet funds. 

In reality, the weights are arbitrary.  No evidence-based or even well-thought-out decision has been made that a student qualifying for free lunch actually adds 50 percent more to the cost of running a school.  The .50 weight is arbitrary, adjusted to make all the other numbers work out.  There is no requirement that the funds associated with student characteristics be employed to help those particular students.  Funds a school receives based on its English-learner population can be used to pay for another gym teacher.  Or a laptop cart.  Or glossy brochures and a professional development workshop on internet safety.  WSF claims to fund schools according to student need, but there is a chasm between the stated need and its fulfillment. 

Equity is a lovely goal, but not at the cost of coherence.  According to New Haven’s School Change plan, the school should be the unit of change, and therefore coherent functioning of the individual schools should be the focus.  If a school has a core functional educational need — aquariums at Sound School, gardens at Barnard, small class sizes at Lincoln-Bassett — it will not receive program-specific support under WSF.  A hybrid funding model, such as that currently under debate in New Haven, can set aside an amount (here, $2 million) “off the top” for these programs district-wide, but there is no prior designation as to which schools and which programs will be supported.  Pay close attention in the coming years to whether that set-aside proves to be sufficient, durable, and strategically distributed.

Market economics have no place in public education.

The market-based, survival-of-the-fittest philosophy has no place in a public institution.  All children have a right to a good public education, and governments have a responsibility to spend tax dollars to ensure that they get one.  Schools are not businesses; they are public goods like clean water, sturdy roads, and capable fire departments. Nothing is, or should be, for sale.  WSF commodifies students.  It creates perverse incentives, and it forces principals to view students and their particular characteristics as pieces of the revenue stream.

WSF is designed to produce winners and losers, where some schools lose funds, teachers, supplies, and support staff to others as “the money follows the child.”  WSF introduces an atmosphere of zero-sum scarcity, a “fight over the crumbs” which distracts from the abundance paid to district administrators, outside consulting firms, and other non-classroom costs.  You can tell where the district’s priorities are: central office costs are always taken “off the top,” prioritized over costs incurred in the classrooms and school buildings.  Outsourced extended day programs are nice and all, but if schools can’t afford textbooks, calculators, and social workers, then the district cannot afford them.

“Principal autonomy” and “control over budgets” sound empowering, but they are only so when resources are sufficient.  Otherwise, principals are given an impossible task.  WSF shifts the blame for the failure to work miracles from central office to 47 principals, diluting public critique.  If a principal cannot meet essential needs with the budget provided, the school’s performance and climate may deteriorate, but insufficient budgets at a school level are more difficult to appeal than district-wide underfunding.  Principal mismanagement will always be the presumption. 

WSF is not need-based budgeting.

How do you budget for your own family?  Do you take each month’s paycheck and divide it equally by all family members?  Perhaps you weight the grown-ups more by age or calories to reflect their greater need?  Or maybe you follow a hybrid model, where you take the mortgage, taxes, and utilities off the top, and then allot the rest equitably on the weighted-family model, charging back for groceries and gas? 

Probably not.  Unless you work on Wall Street, this exercise likely strikes you as quite silly.  Most likely, you spend your family’s collective income on your family’s actual needs, individual and collective.  Sometimes, the new baby or the college student needs a larger share; sometimes everyone has to sacrifice to cover an expensive repair.  Some years may be lean and others luxurious, but families spend their funds to maintain the coherent, collective functioning of the entire family, rather than to achieve dollar-by-dollar equity.

We’ve all seen the cartoon about equity, with the little guy standing on a higher stack of boxes to see over the fence.  Equity is only a virtue where it actually has an equitable effect.  Let’s not make the mistake of giving him a taller hat in the name of fairness.

Jill Kelly is a parent of students at Engineering & Science University Magnet School and was a member of the school funding committee.

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posted by: withallduerespect on March 15, 2016  2:51pm

Jill, we’ve heard you say “no” to wsf everytime there’s an article about it, but we never hear any alternative.

posted by: middle on March 15, 2016  3:17pm

An op-ed in the Independent? How come Three-fifths never got to do one of these? Smells like gentrification vampires to me.

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on March 15, 2016  4:56pm

@withallduerespect, I answered that last time you asked it, but perhaps you missed it. 

There is no need for sweeping structural upheaval.  The highly paid and intelligent people running the district can make conscious, defensible decisions to reallocate funds from an (arguably) over-funded school to meet actual needs somewhere else without tossing all the numbers into a formula and seeing what happens. 

Under a plan of incremental change, several schools would surely lose funding, but it would be case-by-case, surgical, thoroughly argued with good reasons given, and only disruptive to those few schools—in contrast to this plan which is uncritical, seeking rough justice by tossing every school up into the air and seeing where they land.  The dichotomy posed by the administration—status quo or equity—is a false one.  There is a third way, an incremental approach, which targets and repairs the actual inequities in the system.

Please take a moment to reflect on which schools in New Haven you think are currently suffering from inequity and need far more funds than they now have.  Then, go look at the impacts sheet (http://www.nhps.net/sites/default/files/FY17_Budget_Presentation_031016v3Board3-10-16.pdf, page 47) and tell me if the schools you identified are the ones receiving the greatest increases.

posted by: A.T. on March 16, 2016  9:08am

Jill, your alternative is maintaining the status quo? Because this district has never show it’s capable or interested in closing examining and surgically pruning anything, much less the budget.

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on March 16, 2016  9:58am

@A.T., that is a compelling argument.  I suppose if we concede that our district officials are too corrupt and inept to manage budgets in the same manner as almost all of the other districts in CT, then yes—handing the decisions over to a witless formula might actually be an improvement.  But, wow, what would that say about our administration?

posted by: A.T. on March 16, 2016  1:10pm

As a fellow parent and a long time resident of the city, I see no evidence of anything but mismanagement. I had high hopes that Mr. Harries would provide more substance and a clear leadership direction than Mr. Mayo, but we’re several years down the road, and what exactly has been accomplished that is meaningful on the level of students and learning? From what I understand and what I’ve seen up close, not all of the schools even have the basics: internet access, computers that work, basic supplies, well stocked libraries, and adequate support services for the kids (guidance counselors, social workers, ESL teachers, tutors and educational specialists). I can’t speak to corruption, but inept, yes.

posted by: poetbum on March 17, 2016  7:38pm

The funding formula is also coming from the district, and if implemented would replace dysfunction with a new combination of dysfunction and arbitrariness.  The real solution is not to bow down before this abstract scheme, but instead to have clearer lines of communication between parents, teachers, principals, and administrators; to prioritize basic needs over special programs; and to slash the amount of money spent on consultants and outside advisors.