Charters? District schools? Funds should follow the kids

Arguments over funding for charter schools versus funding district schools have a way of bringing flawed thinking to the fore. Take a recent article, “Advocate urges no ‘blank check’ for Philly charters seeking to expand,” in The Philadelphia Public School Notebook.

Reading through the article (and the comments), it’s easy to assume that the school district is the only way to deliver public education. But that’s not true. Public education is not a particular institution or system for delivering schooling. It’s an idea – that all citizens be given an opportunity to learn free of charge. As Andy Smarick notes in his new book, The Urban School Systems of the Future, “the principles of public education could be carried out in any number of ways.” Charter schools are designed, just as district schools are, to fulfill that mission.

The Philadelphia article also presents the crux of the argument against charter expansion as a requirement to tie funding to students:  “Requests to add students would almost certainly put the cash-strapped District many millions of dollars deeper into the red …because Pennsylvania’s system for funding charters requires the School District to make a substantial per pupil payment for every student in Philadelphia who attends a charter.”

The clear implication here is that there’s a problem with tying funding to students.  I hear this argument all the time, and all I can think is, “How odd.”

Why? Because the implicit counter-argument is that adults working in the school district are the ones who should be funded.

 Weighted student funding

The fact is that funds should follow students to any public school they attend.  This idea, called weighted student funding, has several major benefits:

  • Equity – Students are funded equitably regardless of which public school they attend.
  • Transparency – A well-designed formula makes it clear to all stakeholders how much money each school receives and how allocation works.
  • Student-centered education – Funding the kids and not the adults will result in schools being designed around student real needs.

How weighted student funding works

Here’s how a weighted student funding model might work in practice:

Principals would receive a budget based upon the needs of their students. Instead of being assigned staff by the district, they would be given a budget based upon student needs. The amount of funds available per student might vary. For example, a special education student might have more funds follow them than a more average student.

Each principal would then decide what staff and non-staff services to purchase to meet his students’ needs.

Funds weighted toward the true needs of students would provide the schools educating them with the additional resources necessary to get the job done right. A school with a high population of English language learners might decide to forgo an administrative position in favor of an additional reading specialist. The principal might decide to trim janitorial services in order to pay a local non-profit to run an after school language immersion program or purchase a promising new digital learning product that teaches students language acquisition.

Bottom line: Weighted student funding makes sense. It’s the kids we are serving; it’s the kids who should be funded.

A transition to weighted student funding is one of the key actions  that defines portfolio school districts. Read our occasional series on portfolio districts for more detail.