Report: weighted student formula alone not enough

Less experienced, lower paid teachers tend to teach in schools with the poorest children, while veteran, higher paid teachers work predominantly in schools with fewer needy children, contributing to significant funding disparities among schools within most of the state’s largest school districts. That gap wouldn’t necessarily change under the education finance reform that Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed; it might even worsen under a new formula, says Oakland-based Education Trust-West in a new school spending analysis released on Thursday.

In Tipping the Scale Towards Equity, Ed Trust-West reaffirms its support in principle for Brown’s concept of a weighted student formula, allocating potentially thousands of dollars per student to districts with the heaviest concentrations of English learners and low-income students. But Ed Trust-West, which advocates for needy children, calls for the governor to include provisions that will assure that the extra money for disadvantaged students actually will be spent in the schools that those students attend ­– and isn’t diluted throughout a district. Brown’s weighted student formula did not include these requirements.

Ed Trust-West doesn’t go as far as recommending that dollars under a weighted student formula be allocated specifically to school sites and not to districts – an option that the state Department of Finance rejects. However, the report says that the burden should be on districts to justify to the public why all of the extra money for disadvantaged students shouldn’t be spent on programs in their schools, and it calls for much clearer accounting than the districts are reporting.

“Shifting to a (weighted student formula) will not result in funding equity unless the model also ensures that education dollars are equitably distributed to schools within districts,” the report says.

Ed Trust-West is not alone in concluding this. Groups including Public Counsel, the ACLU, Public Advocates, and Children Now have called for more clarity in reporting how money is used and added accountability from districts. The issue is expected to be raised in meetings next month between advocates and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst, the point person for Gov. Jerry Brown on a weighted student formula, as the administration looks ahead to resubmitting a finance reform proposal in 2013.

The Ed Trust-West report updates work it did in 2005, when it first showed disparities in state and local funding for schools within districts, primarily because of differences in teacher salaries. This had been difficult to prove, since most districts use the average teachers’ salary in a district when creating schools’ budgets. (Federal Title I aid, a significant source of money for low-income schools, was not included.) In reviewing data for the 20 largest districts for this report, serving more than a quarter of the state’s students, Ed Trust-West found a salary gap between schools serving the most and least disadvantaged students in 17 districts. The difference ranged from $736 per teacher in Capistrano Unified to $6,644 in San Bernardino Unified.

Average teacher salaries in quartile of schools with least disadvantaged students compared with quartile with the most disadvantaged for the 20 largest districts in California in 2009-10. From Education Trust-West's Tipping the Scale Toward Equity. Click to enlarge

Average teacher salaries in quartile of schools with least disadvantaged students compared with quartile with the most disadvantaged for the 20 largest districts in California in 2009-10. From Education Trust-West’s Tipping the Scale Towards Equity. (Click to enlarge.)

In three districts, higher paid teachers worked in the most disadvantaged schools, led by Los Angeles Unified, which has offered incentives for teachers to move to low-performing schools. (It also plans to use a piece of a newly announced federal $49 million Teacher Incentive Fund to award $20,000 recruitment bonuses for science and math teachers in 40 schools with disadvantaged students.) The average salary difference in Los Angeles, for 2009-10, was nearly $7,000. Fontana Unified and Santa Ana Unified were the other two districts where teachers in the most disadvantaged schools received higher pay, on average.

In a state where teachers are paid by law based on years in the classroom and academic degrees and where evaluations have been pro forma, high average teacher pay is not necessarily a proxy for teacher effectiveness. However, schools with the lowest average pay are more likely to have gone through high turnover and disproportionate numbers of layoffs. Districts facing budget cuts have eliminated teacher training and after-school programs critical to low-performing schools. Extra resources from a weighted student formula would enable schools with disadvantaged students to improve teaching, perhaps by adding collaboration periods or hiring coaches, or putting dollars into technology, extra help for English learners, or after-school programs.

Require consistent school-level spending

Ed Trust-West argues that school budgets should be transparent and there should be hearings for parents to give their say. Clarity is not the case now. Reporting of school-level expenditures is voluntary, and there are no common data definitions, the report says. And the average school-level per-student spending that the largest districts reported to the federal Office of Civil Rights is anywhere from $2,400 to $5,500 less than the per-student revenue figures they reported to the state. There may be valid reasons for the disparity – useful programs for all schools that are budgeted through the district office – but the lack of detail makes it impossible to know if money is being spent wisely or on disadvantaged students, Ed Trust-West says: “As the state considers shifting to a weighted student formula, it will be critically important that the state require districts to account for and report district and school-level expenditures transparently and consistently.”

The report praises efforts by Oakland Unified, San Francisco Unified, and particularly Twin Rivers Unified to combine weighted student funding within their districts with site-based budgeting, which gives principals authority to make decisions over spending. The report recommends using extra money from a state weighted student formula for incentives for other districts to adopt site-based budgeting.

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21 Responses to “Report: weighted student formula alone not enough”

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  1. Cristin Quealy on Oct 31, 2012 at 2:40 pm10/31/2012 2:40 pm

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    Hi navigio,
    You have raised some great points, and they are issues we are already working on here at Pivot Learning Partners to take this work to the next level.  Currently, the PBAR tool already generates a more comprehensive school plan, which meets all requirements for the SPSA (approved by CDE), and most of the use is internal to the system.  However, we are looking into ways to make that information more accessible to a larger public audience; although SPSAs are published by districts, they are still often very inaccessible to the larger community.  One point I would like to underscore is that all school plans are available to the internal system in real time, as they are being created.  Principals and SSCs are reviewing and learning from each other all the time—not simply ones plans are created.  So although we’re not yet facilitating external sharing, we’ve really opened some doors inside the system, and will continue to build on this to provide greater access.
    As part of our next phase of work, which builds on our experience in the SSFR project, we are developing a scalable program that tackles the transparency issue upfront and addresses your exact question: do you think these tools would be of benefit to districts who are not yet implementing this model as a means for being transparent about what they currently do?  We believe the answer is a resounding YES.  We plan to start with transparency, within a district’s current system, but we do not plan to stop there.  We know from our SSFR work that transparency is the critical first step toward a more equitable allocation model, and we are committed to finding the most efficient and effective method to move school districts toward that goal. 

    -Cristin Quealy
    Deputy Director, District Redesign Workshop at Pivot Learning Partners

  2. Mahala Archer on Oct 29, 2012 at 10:56 am10/29/2012 10:56 am

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    I am the project manager for the Strategic School Funding for Results (SSFR)initiative in Twin Rivers Unified. We are now in the fourth year of implementation. We have a weighted formula in place for all school sites that includes restricted and unrestricted resources in more equitable and transparent process. We have 19 pilot sites that have additional discretion over funds to implement site-based programs. We are still refining the process of re-aligning systems at the district level to support principals at the school site so that they don’t have to be categorical experts. We want our principals in collaboration with their community to be focused on needs, goals, prioritizing strategies and results. Towards this end the principals have had extensive professional development and a web-based tool to guide them through the site planning and budgeting process.

    Our focus this year is the development of modules that combine the work of the School Site Council, English Language Advisory Committee, teacher leaders and site administration in a coordinated and collaborative process to develop a comprehensive site plan. These modules provide further support to principals and committees to best utilize their resources and to actively engage their communities in the process.

    For more information on the work at Twin Rivers, please feel free to visit our website at
    or contact me directly at, 916-566-1600 x50906

    Twin Rivers USD is only one of the four partners in the SSFR project. The other three include: Los Angeles USD, Pivot Learning Partners, and the American Institutes for Research. The project website can be found at .


    • navigio on Oct 29, 2012 at 11:59 am10/29/2012 11:59 am

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      Hi Mahala, would you mind defining what ‘transparent’ means for your district? I have yet to see a site-level process that the general public might consider transparent, and am interested to know whether changing that fact is a goal of your project. Also, I seem to remember SSFR including another unified district. Did something change?

      • Mahala Archer on Oct 30, 2012 at 1:51 pm10/30/2012 1:51 pm

        • 000


        You are correct, Pasadena USD used to be a part of SSFR. They had a leadership change and put SSFR on hold. So for right now there are only two districts: Twin Rivers USD and Los Angeles USD.

        Transparency both at the district level and at the site is definitely an important goal for SSFR here in Twin Rivers. I worked with our Budget Advisory Committee (a Board advisory committee composed of parents, teachers, Union representatives, principals, district administrators, and Board appointees) to define transparency for TRUSD. They determined that transparency must go beyond the availability of information and include information that is in a form that is understandable and actionable for collective decision making to a variety of stakeholders.

        We have approached increasing transparency at the school site in three primary ways. First, the tools created for the project provide reports and information specifically designed with stakeholder input to be shared with stakeholders. The Targeted Revenue Model created by the American Institutes for Research can share information on how much money is managed centrally vs. at the school site, need categories and weights, and allocations per school site. The Planning Budgeting and Allocation of Resources (PBAR) tool created by Pivot Learning Partners has a series of reports for all parts of the site planning and budgeting process including goal monitoring and program evaluation.

        Secondly, the modules that I mentioned in my earlier post are designed to engage stakeholders actively in the process of planning and prioritizing making the aforementioned reports meaningful in context and actionable. In a survey last spring of our School Site Council members, 100% of members at our Cohort I pilot sites felt that their community priorities were reflected in their site plans.

        Lastly, the fact that our site plans include the entire school program including staff and other programs funded through unrestricted resources enables stakeholders to understand all of the working parts of a school. We believe they can make more informed choices about priorities and programs when they can see the whole picture.

        • navigio on Oct 30, 2012 at 6:33 pm10/30/2012 6:33 pm

          • 000

          Thank you for the detailed response Mahala. You used the term ‘stakeholders’. Does this mean the transparency is only within the system? ie would a member of the general public be able access this transparent information as well?
          It sounds like the way this data is reported could be done independently of whether site-level control was actually given. Do you think thats true? In other words, do you think these tools would be of benefit to districts who are not yet implementing this model as a means for being transparent about what they currently do? To take it a step further, have these tools been designed in a way that eventual submission to CDE could be done?
          Admittedly, I am not an expert in SSFR though I did read some of the program’s documents about a year ago. So apologies if I am missing some points. I will try to study it a bit more. Thanks again.

  3. Arun Ramanathan on Oct 28, 2012 at 11:10 pm10/28/2012 11:10 pm

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    School communities should have much more control over staffing decisions. It’s interesting when folks call for local control but are unwilling to provide control to schools over something so basic. At the same time, we also believe in the need for strong oversight and accountability for student outcomes and other factors that indicate high quality learning environments for district schools and charters.

  4. Richard ONeill on Oct 26, 2012 at 6:45 pm10/26/2012 6:45 pm

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    Just curious; has teacher longevity been accurately (or at all) be accounted for? Teachers in suburban schools tend to stick around and climb the seniority-based salary scale. Teachers in big city schools tend to leave for the suburban schools when they get a chance. The effect on the average salary is that big city schools have more lower paid young teachers. These phenomena must have impact on the average salary. My daughter is a new teacher in a small new charter school full of new teachers and makes about half what I do as an old fart at a suburban HS full of long term employees. Just curious, eh?

    BTW: if WSF means less dough for the suburbanites in today’s cash starved schools it’s quite DOA.


    Richard ONeill


    • navigio on Oct 29, 2012 at 10:36 am10/29/2012 10:36 am

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      In fact, I think the article is exactly about that dynamic. You’ll note that the district with the highest salaries at highly disadvantages schools is the one that provides an economic incentive for teachers to go to / stay in those schools. This is because without something like that, what you describe generally tends to happen. There is another side of the debate, and that is the extent to which those cost differences matter. The concern that teacher spending is disparate assumes that experience and qualifications (things that are linked to pay in public districts) matter. But of course, some feel that those things are mostly irrelevant. And for those, the ‘solution’ to inequities related to teacher salaries would not be to re-distribute funding more equally, rather to decouple salary incentives from such things as experience and education (which would tend to have the same effect). The title 1 loophole mentioned by edfundwonk ignores salary as an indicator of quality, and thus tends to obscure the funding disparity. Unfortunately, there is little consensus on how much weight those things should be given, so the discussion is rarely had on common ground.

      Finally, charters often have lower teacher compensation anyway, as well as a general lack of step increases (for those who are not unionized or dont tie salary schedules to their district’s anyway).

  5. Eric Premack on Oct 26, 2012 at 2:38 pm10/26/2012 2:38 pm

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    Charter schools have been implementing a version of weighted per-pupil funding and site-based budgeting in California since 1998. Unfortunately, they receive a lot less funding per-pupil than do similarly-situated traditional public schools. I don’t know of a single charter school principal/director who doesn’t like it. While it takes additional work and understanding on the part of school-level leaders, no one should expect to hold schools accountable for results without it.

    Likewise, staff hiring, evaluation, discipline, and compensation decisions should be handled at the site level. Without site-level control, site-based budgeting has very limited practical meaning given than the vast majority of spending is driven by staff compensation.

    If Ed Trust West is serious about this report, they need to amend the Education Code provisions that mandate salary schedules and Government Code provisions that mandate that site assignment decisions are subject to the collective bargaining process–and/or support charter schools.

  6. edfundwonk on Oct 26, 2012 at 11:33 am10/26/2012 11:33 am

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    The federal Title 1 program actually encourages this kind of disparity. Although it requires that funds be allocated in a manner that ensures “equity” among students,the program defines equity in terms of pupil:teacher ratio rather than in terms of per-pupil funding.

    In a school receiving Title 1 funds, two 30-student classrooms with one teacher each — one experienced and highly paid, the other a low-paid beginner — would comply with these Title 1 requirements, even if the latter needs additional resources to compensate for its students’ educational disadvantages (as is the intent of Title 1).

    This issue is raised from time to time by the LAO but, to my knowledge, neither the Department of Education nor the Department of Finance has requested an exemption from the US Department of Education that would allow us to define equity in terms of per-pupil funding rather than pupil-teacher ratio.

  7. navigio on Oct 26, 2012 at 10:37 am10/26/2012 10:37 am

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    There are two different things here.

    One is the simple act of transparency. We are not currently doing this well enough at the school site level to be useful. That can be fixed regardless of the question of level of control. In reality, SARCs contain some of this kind of information. They contain a site-level per-pupil allocation, broken down by unrestricted and restricted (and how it compares to the district and state). They also contain average teacher salary, as well as credentials. They dont break down restricted funding sources, nor special education nor similar. The problem is that SARCs are published almost a year after the school year to which they apply is over, and worse, the financial data is often two or more years behind. But note that as a result of the SARC requirement, districts must already calculate site-level allocations, however, this data is not published anywhere other than SARCs, not reported to CDE, not posted on ed-data, not published in district budget documents, so there is no way to validate it. This is a real problem. I have found mistakes in the site-level numbers in our own district in 2 of the past 3 years. But luckily the numbers were obvious to me as I had been paying attention, but clearly they could have been wrong to an extent I would not have noticed.

    The other thing is the question of site control of budget decisions. Ostensibly this is as a means to encourage oversight into whether money is properly allocated or efficiently used? While it is true that one might consider additional skills would be required to deal with all this new money, I personally find that realization troubling. I am going to guess that a third to a half of schools in public urban districts get more restricted money than unrestricted money. In addition, the principal currently should have some say into their staff. As a result, many principals should already be ‘equipped’ to do this. If they are not, that bothers me, and I am wondering how their restricted allocations are being applied (admittedly, if the majority of that restricted money is for special education, then they will not necessarily have to have this level of control yet, but again, we dont know this). I would also add that I think principals should be required to have MBAs anyway (personally, I am baffled at the extent to which we seem to completely ignore the qualifications of our principals. They are often the most important part of that system/hierarchy). In any case, I think the site-level control could end up being a case of ‘be careful what you ask for’. The reality is that site-level decisions are going to be based much more on actual cost than on something like quality, to the extent this is possible given contracts. I have seen this happen, and it is not only troubling, but I think sites are more susceptible to it given the increased involvement of people who dont understand many of the nuances of education needs (ie parents). This is something that may have to be accepted though. But there is a real danger here if the move is accompanied with a relaxation of rules like seniority or similar. My goal is not to state a position on those things, just an observation of where those forces can easily lead. This may actually be one reason for a push for more site level control.

    I am also dismayed to see the following quote:

    ‘Superintendent Frank Porter sees the shift in his district. “Never in my fourteen years (as a principal), did I ever look at anybody else’s school improvement plans. It just didn’t happen.” ‘

    I assume he’s referring to SPSAs, and if so, as an SSC member, that is really troubling. SPSAs are not only published, but often discussed at board of education meetings. An SSC who has not taken it upon itself to understand what other people are doing is really working in the dark, imho. And I’m guessing is one that simply rubber stamps principal and/or staff’s policies. Obviously, as site control becomes more pervasive, this will be a more complex process, but in 14 years? Really?

    Finally, I will just say that during recent budget cuts, teachers have been RIF’ed, rehired, long-term-sub-ed, etc etc. The result has been near chaos in the revolving teacher scenario. Our own school has had maybe 50% teacher turnover in the past half dozen years. We have been lucky, for the most part, in how that has worked out for us, but I think it still has negatively impacted performance and school atmosphere. But wrt this article, the result is that teacher salary distributions can really change quite extremely in only a couple years, especially in small schools. So understanding what is causing any shift is almost as important as noticing the shift. Furthermore, as the teacher force is ‘thinned’ due to reducing budgets, that force will tend to be more highly paid (this is a function of seniority-based layoffs). As a counter to that, many districts are trying to coerce more experienced teachers to retire, and to some extent are successful. These opposing forces would also ideally be understood in order to accurately characterize how teaching resources are distributed. IMHO, of course.


    • el on Oct 26, 2012 at 1:57 pm10/26/2012 1:57 pm

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      When I first joined my school’s site council, I questioned everyone very closely about the purpose of the general plan, who would read it, whether anyone would hold us accountable for the goals we wrote, whether it was just a requirement that we write it and then it would live, unread, in a drawer, etc.

      I recall making some people rather uncomfortable with those questions, which left me with the impression that I was the first parent to ask silly :-) questions like that, at least in recent memory.

      I don’t know what it was like before I came, but definitely since then, the discussions around the site plan have been meaningful for the staff and parents who participated, and the Board is reading them.

      It’s kind of appalling to me that a Superintendent would not have read all his site plans, but then I remind myself that in Los Angeles Unified they have over 700 schools. It’s probably not likely that any one person has read them all… which to me is another sign that your district has gotten too large.

  8. Paul on Oct 26, 2012 at 7:30 am10/26/2012 7:30 am

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    It’s amusing to see education advocates call for changes on one hand and deny the necessary resources on the other.

    Broader site-based budgeting, stricter site-level accounting, formal site-level financial reporting, and site-level public hearings would all require more administrative work. Today’s principals, certainly, are not trained as business managers, so it seems that new specialists would be required. Even if principals had the necessary skills, they would not have the time, what with California’s low principal:student ratios, and with the national push for more elaborate teacher evaluation systems. Again and again, funding initiatives restrict “non-classroom” spending, so it seems unlikely that there would be resources to hire the necessary people.


    • el on Oct 26, 2012 at 9:05 am10/26/2012 9:05 am

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      I would hope that boards of education covering districts with significant differences in student population would ask their financial people to break out money (and class size) per school site, so that they can see disparities as they appear. Obviously it creates some additional work and takes additional time, but it’s pretty hard to see into a budget when your buckets are too large.

    • John Fensterwald on Oct 26, 2012 at 9:11 am10/26/2012 9:11 am

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      Paul: I have added a link to a column that Cristin Quealy of Pivot Learning Partners did explaining the Twin Rivers’ site budgeting. I understand the principals underwent extensive training before the process was tried. You’re right that it requires new skills.

    • Arun Ramanathan on Oct 26, 2012 at 10:45 am10/26/2012 10:45 am

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      A number of districts in CA such as Oakland and San Diego Unified have been using this process for years without the addition of business managers. In Twin Rivers, principals did receive additional training and were thrilled to have far more control over their school budgets. They were then able to make decisions that met the needs of their schools and student populations. We talked to one principal who, working with his teacher and parent community, decided to increase the number of EL specialists because of a large and mobile EL student population. Another pricipal and school community actually decided to add a summer program.

  9. Paul Muench on Oct 26, 2012 at 6:49 am10/26/2012 6:49 am

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    Do elememtary schools have more equitable funding than high schools? All the data is for unified districts so just wondering if the funding story is consistent across all levels of schools.


    • John Fensterwald on Oct 26, 2012 at 7:51 am10/26/2012 7:51 am

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      Paul: I hope that the Ed Trust-West researchers will answer your question regarding elementary schools. Regarding your first comment, Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Education Trust-West, has consistently called for more funding for schools in opinion pieces I have run, which you can find here. He also happens to support Proposition 38, which would allocate money to schools, not districts, while directing more to those with higher proportions of low-income students and English learners.

      • Heather Barondess on Oct 30, 2012 at 3:37 pm10/30/2012 3:37 pm

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        Paul – Thanks for your inquiry. I am one of the co-authors of the report.

        The extent to which elementary schools are more equitably funded than high schools varies by district. Consider the two we discuss in the report: Long Beach and Riverside. In Long Beach, the data suggest that middle schools spend the most equitably and that elementary schools spend the least equitably. In Riverside, high schools spend extremely equitably, while middle schools show the least alignment between spending and need. And in the remaining 18 districts, we see everything in between, with no real pattern emerging as to how equitable funding varies by school type.

        • Paul Muench on Nov 4, 2012 at 11:59 am11/4/2012 11:59 am

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          Thank you Heather.

    • navigio on Oct 26, 2012 at 8:21 am10/26/2012 8:21 am

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      Couple quick comments. This data does not include federal funding or special education, and because of that, differences between elementary and secondary schools can exist. I know of districts who dont consider their high schools title 1 (even though demographically they could be), but do their elementaries and fund them respectively. This might not change the total amount they get, but will change how much of state and local only each might get. The report also specifically mentions elementaries a number of times, but doesnt make it clear if this data is only for them. Need to read more closely. More later…

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