As deputy superintendent of Shelby County Schools in Memphis, Tenn., Lin Johnson has a bird’s-eye view of each school’s student population and funding. “When you start to think about the level of poverty within Memphis, it’s pretty deep,” Johnson says: Of the 104,000 students currently enrolled in the county, close to 40 percent live in poverty. And, Johnson adds, despite the funding and staff dedicated to the county’s schools each year, there is no guarantee those resources are actually helping the students who need it most.
Johnson credits a model called weighted-student funding — also known as student-weighted allocation — for improving the way Shelby schools now operate. “When I first arrived here, [I spoke with] a number of principals, and the one thing I heard that echoed was, ‘We need to address inequity within our districts,’” Johnson says. “How are we aligning resources to make sure we are meeting the needs of students, [while] giving principals flexibility and autonomy to address those needs?”
In a traditional funding model, each school receives a set allocation of staff and resources, depending on the size of the school — for example, a school might receive one teacher per 20 students, regardless of the students’ needs. With weighted-student funding (WSF), each school receives a budget based on the number of students at their school, while taking into account student needs. Proponents of this funding model praise it as a way to ensure students who need additional funding for a specific reason (i.e., English language learners or those with low proficiency scores on standardized tests, for example) receive those funds, while helping principals feel like they have more control of the planning process.
Education Resource Strategies (ERS), a national education nonprofit, worked with Shelby County Schools to set up their new funding model. “The goal is to ensure schools use the resources they have to ensure all kids have an opportunity to be successful — and this includes strategies on how to use time, assigning teachers in ways that leverage their expertise and giving new teachers support from mentors,” says David Rosenberg, a partner at ERS. “You’re also able to allocate dollars more equitably. As far as transparency, it’s very clear why you get what you get. It’s about student need, and not every student gets the same thing.”
While some school districts opt to partner with nonprofits like ERS to help implement WSF for a fee, other school districts, such as those in New York and Chicago, have decided to go it alone. Regardless of the approach, “it’s giving more autonomy to schools,” says Marguerite Roza, senior research affiliate at the Center on Reinventing Public Education and director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown, a research center dedicated to exploring and modeling complex educational policies and practice. “There’s some research that shows that when you’re looking at school productivity, there’s a cocktail of conditions that yield a higher return on your dollar.”
How high of a return remains to be seen. While WSF has been implemented in the school systems of at least 16 major urban areas as of 2018, how it actually helps students is still being determined. In 2016, the Edunomics Lab received a three-year grant from the federal government to study 19 districts where WSF has been implemented, including Shelby County as well as other cities such as Atlanta, Chicago, Baltimore, San Francisco and Denver. In April of this year, the lab will host a meeting between researchers and other interested parties to discuss WSF’s impact on standardized test scores, while identifying areas of the funding formula that require more research. “The number one reason districts do this is for equity,” Roza says. “Right now in a lot of districts, they are doling out principals and AP programs and may end up with one school that spends a lot more than another, and that’s not particularly equitable.”
But districts don’t necessarily need to implement WSF in order to train their principals to be more strategic stewards of their resources. For example, schools in Tulsa, Okla., are chronically underfunded. Tulsa Public Schools does not use WSF, but is implementing something called Empower, a pilot program to help school leaders reorganize people and money to create more collaborative planning time for teachers. With Empower, Angie Teas, principal at Tulsa’s Mark Twain Elementary, was able to provide teachers with 90 additional minutes each week for collaborative planning between classes, something Johnson and Teas both deem “essential.” “Instead of it being a compliance-based process that schools complete over the summer,” says Eddie Branchaud, principal associate at ERS, “[Tulsa is] building a process in which schools look at student and teacher needs, identify priorities and engage their teams — all on an earlier timeline that allows them to hire the talent they need and prep their staff to implement [any necessary] changes.”
Though it will be a few years before there’s enough data to show if WSF works or not, the key to its popularity might lie in the fact that students seem to be in favor of it. Clark County, in Nevada, isn’t currently using a WSF model, but they’re moving in that direction, thanks to local high-school students who were invited to provide feedback on the current budgeting process. “The conclusion was that [the school] should make that decision, not the district,” says Roza. According to a town hall held last month, Clark County district leaders are expecting to implement their changes by 2024.
But even though students seem to support WSF, Roza also points out that it might not be right for every district. An individual school’s capacity to deal with change is an important thing to consider. “If I’m in a district and I don’t have really great principal management skills, [such a] model might be a bad idea, given that I don’t have the conditions in place to benefit from it,” Roza says.
Similarly, there’s no easy way to identify that there’s a direct correlation between weighted-student funding and improvement in grades. “It doesn’t seem practical to say ‘If my kid’s in third grade and my district just adopted a weighted-student formula, that’s the reason their reading scores went up,’” Roza says. “I think what we are realizing is that we thought we could run large urban districts as factories: We could line up the pieces and parts in the same way, and get the same results.”
While WSF often helps school districts with more than 20,000 students, it doesn’t do much for smaller districts, such as those with fewer than 5,000 students enrolled. “If you have a small enough pot of money where you know what’s going on with each school, I wouldn’t bother with it,” Roza says. And because smaller schools automatically receive less money due to a smaller student body, the formula can actually backfire: In Boston, for example, implementing weighted student funding led to a Hunger Games scenario, where one school gained faculty while another lost beloved teachers.
Regardless of outcome on a student-by-student basis, Roza says that giving schools control over their own finances is a significant improvement. “Much of what schooling does involves human interactions, human process and relationships,” Roza says. “By giving principals the ability to decide how to spend [their money], you’ve made a step towards equity.”
More: Fixing America’s Schools