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New York School Funding Experiment Hampered by Cuts, Study Finds

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's move to base school funding on student needs has made some progress in providing more equitable support, a new study finds, but a complicated transition and overall budget cuts mean more than nine out of 10 schools still don't receive appropriate support based on the needs of their students.

The New York City Independent Budget Office this morning released its evaluation of the first five years of the Fair Student Funding initiative, entitled, "Is It Getting Fairer?" The short answer to that question is yes, but at a glacial pace.

The initiative was launched in 2007-08, part of a wave of school districts experimenting with weighted school funding to match the needs of students. The Big Apple, for example, provides additional support to schools for students based on 26 different student-need categories in five areas:

• Grades: For example, middle school students are considered the most expensive grades to educate, followed by high school and then K-5 students. While a 4th grader would have a weight of 1, a 7th grader would have a rate of 1.08.
• Academic interventions: The remediation required for students who entered a grade below or well below grade level standards.
• English-language learners: This is also divided by grade span.
• Special education: These are divided based on the amount of the day spent in integrated and self-contained classrooms.
• Portfolios: These apply only to high schools with special curricula such as career and technical education programs.

Overall, the ratio of students with additional need to the base student population—called the "student need index"— remained fairly constant at about 1.45, meaning that on average schools had to spend about 45 percent more to educate high-need students than students without additional needs. However, from 2007-08 through 2011-12, the percentage of schools serving the highest-need student populations more than doubled, from 5 percent of New York City schools in 2007-08 to 9.8 percent of the city's schools in 2011-12. According to the funding formula, these schools would be expected to need to spend 75 percent more to educate their student populations than schools without high-need students.

The new funding formula did lead to more targeted funding based on student need, the study found, but it was greatly undermined by cuts in the overall funding for the initiative, which by 2011-12 had fallen 6.3 percent from the 2007-08 allocation of $5.4 billion.

The cuts were not applied based on the weighted student needs, and across the five years of implementation, nearly all schools received less support than they were entitled to based on the Fair Student Funding formula. Moreover, the lower allocations disproportionately hurt some groups of students—middle school students performing below academic standards, English-learners in elementary and high school, and some high school special education students—who all received funding lower than their weighted allocations both in 2011-12 and at least two other years. For example, high school English-learners were funded at a weight of .30 to .37, well below their target formula weight of .50 in every year of the initiative's implementation.

"This result indicates that some [Fair Student Funding] budget adjustments are unintentionally—though systematically—penalizing schools with these students," the report notes. "With 94 percent of schools receiving too little money based on the needs of their students, [Fair Student Funding] has not been distributed as it was first intended to be. The formula still has a ways to go towards the FSF initiative's goal of giving adequate funding to all city students through a readily understood and transparent formula."

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