Fair Student funding turns ten this year and so the district is looking at the formula to see how it should be changed. Fair Student Funding is the name of a model which the district uses to decide how to distribute money to schools each year. Each student gets a base amount of funding, ($5400) and money is added to that amount if the student is an advanced student or a struggling student. Additional supplemental amounts are added for special education students and English language learners. The money allocated for each student then goes to that student’s school. We started this policy in 2008 under CEO Andres Alonso.
With the policy reaching the ten year mark the district is looking to revamp it. They’ve held around six stakeholder forums to get parent and community feedback. BMORE Steering Committee member and parent Keysha Goodwin attended five of the forums, and has written a policy proposal to counter what the district wants to do. I attended two of the meetings, and while I haven't’ been able to learn enough to come up with a policy proposal of my own, it’s been clear from the two meetings that the problems with Fair Student Funding deserve far more conversation. The School Board is voting on the new Fair Student Funding formula next Tuesday January 23rd. The Board should postpone the vote and there are several reasons why.
The Problem with the Current Formula
One of the big problems with the current formula is that it’s based on lagging MSA data. Each student gets extra funding based on their test scores. The specific problem with using test scores to allocate funding in Baltimore City is that FSF isn’t based on PARCC or i-Ready, the tests BCPSS students actually take. It’s based on the no longer used MSA. The school budgets for this current school year were calculated using MSA data from SY 14-15. That’s three year old data being used to make decisions today. That doesn’t make sense. We’ve had ten years of “data-driven accountability” and districts and states still aren’t producing data that’s reliable and high quality enough for high-stakes decision making.
The problem of lagging data alone indicates that we have to do something to change the funding formula next year. We can’t let this problem continue. But the district’s proposed changes to the formula aren’t the answer.
The district’s major changes are that it wants to replace the low achievement supplement with a poverty supplement. The extra money for students who scored Advanced on the MSA is changing to extra money for students who are identified as advanced, gifted or talent development. They are also adding a weight for concentrated poverty. The district gets credit for listening to parents and educators at forums. We said that we wanted to move away from weights being based on PARCC and we wanted the formula to use an equity lens that addresses poverty. However there are still so many problems and unanswered questions that this new formula should not be approved next Tuesday.
Problems with the Proposed Formula
We don’t know how the proposed formula would affect each school. In the January 16th forum, Central Office promised to release a breakdown of how each school’s 2018 budget would have been different if it were calculated using the proposed formula. They have said they would put this online before the Tuesday vote “by the end of this week.” Assuming that’s Friday, that’s only giving advocates a weekend and one work day to find the data and share it with the rest of the school community.
Replacing the low achievement weight with a poverty weight is a bad idea. We don’t collect Free and Reduced Meals forms anymore. Now, poverty is measured by counting the number of kids receiving Direct Certification, TCA & SNAP, and other social service benefits. This method only counts the kids who would get “free” lunch and doesn’t count the kids who get “reduced” lunch. It leaves out immigrant populations who are understandably wary of completing government forms when our federal government expresses open hostility to them. All this means we are underestimating the number of students living in poverty. Why would we change the low achievement weight to a poverty weight if we don’t have accurate poverty data?
The district says that replacing the low achievement weight with a poverty weight means that “more or less” the same amount of money is flowing to schools because the populations overlap significantly. This is proof that if you say an argument confidently, especially with the authority of a government official, it doesn’t matter how bad of an idea it is. Low achievement and poverty, while correlated, are distinct, and it’s sloppy thinking not to recognize them as such. They are different, and they need to be understood and treated differently. Classroom educators who see kids everyday already do this and we are waiting for policymakers to catch up. We recognize that addressing poverty means paying attention to children’s material, social and emotional gaps and providing the services that they need. On the other hand, educators address low academic achievement by analyzing students’ cognitive processes and giving them appropriate feedback and a supportive learning environment where improvement and growth are valued. The difference between these two strategies reflects that schools fulfill both academic and community needs. It is difficult to support both types of needs at the classroom level without resources for each. We should recognize that academic and community needs are distinct and they can be implemented better and with more fidelity if there are separate resources allocated for each one.
Throughout the FSF review process the discussion has been too narrow. The only major changes to Fair Student Funding that the district is proposing have to do with the weights. That’s like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Where’s the discussion of how FSF is being implemented? Now is the time to seriously ask whether principals are given adequate training and support to manage multi-million dollar budgets. We should be comparing traditional school funding with charter funding to see if opening charter schools has had the effect of decreasing the amount of money available for the rest of the system. Finally, we need to be making more transparency demands of the district. If school based budgeting is supposedly a democratic process, why isn’t it easier for parents and communities to see a school’s budget, provide input, and flex their collective muscle to have the budget reflect their values? It’s unclear to everyone what the process is for family and community input. The process at the school level should be far more transparent. And finally, Fair Student Funding is only 31 cents of every dollar in City Schools budget. Can we get some more transparency about where the other 69 cents is going, in an easy to read format? The district has had six meetings to discuss Fair Student Funding and hasn’t even touched several important questions.
Inherent Philosophical Problems with Fair Student Funding
Fair Student Funding makes schools compete for students in order to afford basic services. Schools aren’t built to compete, they’re built to teach. Disadvantaged schools especially aren’t built to compete. I recently took 8th graders to the HS Choice Fair, and I got a really great set of earbuds in a case that had a high school’s name and emblem on them as a giveaway. Every high school in this city could be spending their money better than on e