School Finance Fix

National Journal uses passage of a recent Rhode Island bill to launch a discussion of school finance.  Here’s my opening post.
It takes state leadership to implement a school funding formula where 1) money follows the student, 2) low income students receive disproportionate funding, and 3) where funding is flexible and outcome oriented. These are some of the conclusions from the School Finance Redesign Project (SFRP)’s final report, Facing the Future: Financing Productive Schools. This five year study unpacked the convoluted world of school finance. Researchers Jacob Adams, Marguerite Roza, and Paul Hill produced a guide for state policy makers.
Local control and reliance on local property taxes produced a system of school finance that reflected community wealth not student need. The ‘all students to high standards’ agenda demands that states reengineer school finance. This is politically difficult because it requires taking money from wealthy areas and/or adding lots of money to the system.
Funding schools based on student count and student need (rather than FTE formulas) and breaking lock-step pay schedules would give schools serving low income students the opportunity to pay more and hire more staff.
It seemed obvious that we needed to move away from a system predominantly based on local property taxes, but as many states are experiencing, a system that relies heavily on sales tax is also vulnerable to downturns. The bottom line is that education must be a state priority and state leaders need to focus on equitable outcomes not just equitable funding.
Charter schools, often robbed of local funding, deserve the same weighted funding as well as access to public facilities or facilities funding. And, with the expansion and improvement of online learning, it is vital that ‘money follows the kid’ be extended to the course level. New blends of online and onsite learning hold the potential to improve learning and operating productivity.
School finance is no one-time simple fix, it takes a continuous improvement mindset and real commitment by state policy makers.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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