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Funding Adequacy Still Misunderstood

Despite a series of court rulings over the years, states are still not funding public schools fairly. The issue is in the limelight once again because schools are expected to meet the Common Core standards ("In Public Education, Edge Still Goes to Rich," The New York Times, Nov. 6).  

Although state constitutions vary in their wording, the principle of adequacy is at the center of the debate over funding.  The problem is that what constitutes adequate funding in schools serving affluent students is woefully inadequate in schools serving non-English speaking and special education students. In other words, equal funding for every student is not the answer.  

In its place, weighted student funding has been proposed. This means that funding would be based on the numbers and types of students enrolled. Whether it would work as intended, however, is debatable.  That's because the U.S. has a "complex, multilayered education system" ("Weighted Student Funding in the Netherlands: A Model for the U.S.?" Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, May 2010).

Nevertheless, I think California serves as a model. Its new budget gives more money to districts with greater concentrations of needy students.  It begins with a specified base payment for each student.  Schools will get 20 percent more for each student who is poor enough to qualify for a free lunch or is not fluent in English.  An additional "concentration" payment is made for districts in which more than 55 percent of students are disadvantaged.  Special education students will be covered by federal funds.

No system is perfect. For example, some districts have pointed out  they will not get enough dollars to restore programs serving all students that were cut during the past five years ("Schools with fewer needy students decry California funding change," Los Angeles Times, Jun. 17).  But I think California serves as a good start.  The key is to allow individual schools enough flexibility in using the funds.

Yet I stress that no amount of money spent in schools will result in the outcomes all reasonable people seek.  That's because so much of student performance is the direct result of factors beyond the control of the best teachers.  Until we are committed to addressing these conditions, I expect to see a continuation, with some modifications, of what we have today.  

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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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