Report: weighted student formula alone not enough

October 26, 2012

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 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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