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Alternative to Traditional School Funding

Budget shortfalls are forcing states to come up with novel solutions for the wide disparities between poor and affluent school districts. The latest reminder was a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling in May that ordered the Legislature to increase spending for only the 31 poorest urban districts ("Court Orders New Jersey to Increase Aid to Schools," The New York Times, May 24). Not surprisingly, the decision did not please the other districts in the state.

In light of the problem in New Jersey and in other states as well, perhaps it's time to consider what is known as weighted student funding. The Summer 2011 issue of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management contains a study by Helen F. Ladd and Edward B. Fiske titled "Weighted Student Funding in the Netherlands: A Model for the U.S.?" For the past quarter of a century, the Netherlands has been using a version of WSF for all its elementary schools serving children from ages 4 to 12.

Here's how the strategy works: The government provides resources to elementary schools on a per-student basis but with the amount determined by the educational disadvantage of the group to which the student belongs. The result has been that schools with high proportions of weighted students have almost 60 percent more teachers per student, as well as more support staff per teacher. The approach has garnered consistent political support.

The first thought that occurred to me was how the Netherlands is able to equitably identify the categories of students who deserve the additional funding. According to the Educational Priorities Policy of 1985, there are four such categories: native Dutch students whose parents have little education, and disadvantaged immigrant children from non-Western countries. (The other two categories are so small that Ladd and Fiske did not include them in their analysis.)

Would a version of WSF work in the U.S.? WSF depends on three fundamental conditions: Money follows students to the schools they attend, the amount differs according to the educational needs of the student, and schools are allowed to use the money as they deem appropriate. Conservatives like the strategy because it encourages parental choice, and liberals like the strategy because it helps the most disadvantaged students. Actually, several cities in the U.S. have already employed variations of WSF, including Seattle, San Francisco and Houston.

Nevertheless, Ladd and Fiske conclude that the U.S. is not likely to derive the same benefits as the Netherlands because of "the complex, multilayered" system of education here and the lack of political consensus in favor of "generous weights." What they mean is that the U.S. still strongly favors local control of education, and since local districts link funding of schools to enrollment, it will be difficult to develop a progressive funding formula.

But there's another concern: how to set the exact student weights. This is a subject of considerable debate. Some maintain that decades of empirical research already exist on education costs and student needs. Yet despite the data, others want the process of weight determination to be done by a district-appointed committee on weights. The trouble with the latter is that funds too often are absorbed by school bureaucracies, with needy children being shortchanged. It's important to bear in mind that the Ladd-Fiske study focused on WSF for schools - not for districts.

Perhaps one day, WSF will get a fairer trial here. If we're serious about the academic achievement gap and we know what causes it, then it behooves us to consider new ways of funding schools. Consider a report in March from UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access. After three years of budget cuts in California, the gap between schools in poor and wealthy communities has widened. That's because wealthier schools have been able to recruit parents to pay for such things as athletics, field trips, and arts and music electives. For every dollar a low-income school raises, a high-income schools raises $20. I rest my case.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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