Years ago, when I had budget oversight over DC Public Schools (DCPS), a well regarded principal sought my help in getting additional support to improve reading in her school. After looking at her school's budget, I mentioned to her that it appeared on paper as though she had the resources to get the help she needed. Exasperated, she said to me, "Mr. Chavous, yes, my school budget is increasing this year. But you miss the point. I will have more money to spend on existing programs and compliance needs, but I don't have the money to get my kids what they need so they can read. I have no flexibility to move the money around, and the people downtown set my budget without thinking at all about where my kids are academically."
Our education finance system is jumbled mass of well-intentioned programs, compliance requirements and rules designed to fund adult interests, not student outcomes. This reality leads to a myriad of challenges for the dedicated, enterprising principals whose hands are tied as they try to create a learning environment that works for their kids. While it is possible to recognize the intentions behind all the diverse programs that make up the school finance system, it is rarely possible to maximize student learning while complying with these rules.
Dr. Marguerite Roza is a preeminent expert on school finance systems. In a paper she co-authored with Paul Hill and James Harvey titled Facing the Future: Financing Productive Schools, she says that school finance systems fund enrollment, adjust funding to property wealth and use categorical grants to target particular needs. They pay staff on a salary schedule, account for spending by fund, function and object, and accommodate intergovernmental contributions. While each program, rule, or appropriation makes sense on its own, they are not always complimentary or compatible with existing programs or rules. Over time the sheer mass of different programs, rules, and appropriations exceed an educators ability to use them together effectively.
And this is a problem.
Even if every school district in America had twice as much money as it does now, it is doubtful that it could properly educate every child with the current financing structure in place.
Folks, the paramount purpose of an education finance system is to channel and deliver public funds to educate our students. As as simple as this sounds, today, no school district finance system in our country can claim this as its core purpose.
The best approach would be, as Dr. Roza maintains, to rebuild school finance systems so that funding is directly linked to results. For that to occur, we have to start with the basics. Once the core mission is reinforced, not a small undertaking, school money should be allocated on a true per pupil basis using a "pupil based formula" that allocates dollars, not purchased resources, based on students. What's key is the inclusion of purchased resources.
As a result, school leaders, like that DC principal, have little or no discretion in how they spend those dollars because they are bound by a predetermined employee roster, various services, professional development and assorted programs: purchased resources. As explained by Dr. Roza, funds must be portable enough so that those accountable for student outcomes can use the money in the best way possible to maximize student achievement. This practice presents the ultimate challenge. How do you break down the established adult driven spending bureaucracy that historically won't go away?
For education reformers focused on growing new school leaders, navigating union contracts and ensuring that quality teachers are in every classroom, it makes sense to pay more attention to the education financing system. Implementing much needed changes to school district financing would lead to positive reform to the bureaucracy within the school system.
Fortunately, that DC principal found the resources for what she needed, largely because she knew her way around the system. She ended up leaving DCPS and becoming an equally highly successful principal at a charter school. She said she would have never left the system if they had allowed her to do her job and get vital resources so that the students in her school could acquire a skill so fundamental to their future success -- learning how to read.