Novel fix for school funding failures

A broad bipartisan coalition of 75 eminent education and government leaders representing the entire political spectrum, including the former U.S. secretaries of education from both Republican and Democratic administrations, have signed on as supporters of a new report calling for a dramatic overhaul of how public school funding is distributed.

The fundamental recommendation in “Fund the Child: Tackling Inequity and Antiquity in School Finance” is that school funding “should follow the child, on a per-student basis, to the public school that he/she attends. Per-student funding should be based on the individual child’s need and should arrive at the school as real dollars that can be spent flexibly, with accountability systems focused more on results.”

The Thomas C. Fordham Institute report calls this a “weighted student formula funding system” to replace the troubled existing model, which funnels money to school districts based on their attendance and local property taxes. Today most disadvantaged students simply do not receive the funding they need for closing the achievement gap, while tremendous sums are wasted on red tape and overhead.

Achieving a quality education costs more for disadvantaged students than for others. Yet a funding gap of almost $900 per student exists between high poverty and low poverty districts in 36 states, according to the Education Trust. California’s 10 largest school districtshave spending gaps between their high-minority and low-minority schools ranging from $64,000 to $500,000 per school.

But if a greater share of education money began to attach itself to the most needy American children, basic free market principles would direct higher-paid teachers and higher-quality classroom resources to the students who needed it most.

This would give all young Americans a fairer chance to achieve at high levels, regardless of their economic class, familiarity with the English language or special physical needs. If parents in wealthier districts wish to subsidize extra programs for their children, of course they are free to do so via small tax-deductible contributions to local foundations, such as have been effectively started in a number of Peninsula cities.

So many vested interests benefit from the established public education system that a drastic change like weighted student formula funding would encounter heavy resistance. But this innovative new solution is worthy of thoughtful consideration, especially since traditional funding formulas have proven largely ineffective.

California had a windfall of unexpected revenues this year and will fully fund its schools in 2007. But the future will eventually bring back low-revenue years, as it always does. Sooner or later a truly effective school funding formula will become vital to the state’s global competitiveness.

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