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Fair Student Funding Is Dumb. A Comprehensive Analysis.

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 earbuds. The same is true of marketing in general. It’s a waste of our scarce resources.

  • Statisticians have a phrase: Garbage in, garbage out. It means that if you put low quality data into a formula, the formula will produce numbers that don’t make sense. We don’t have good data to accurately populate our Fair Student Funding formula, so we shouldn’t have faith that the numbers the formula produces accurately represent student need. As discussed, the formula relies on 3-year old MSA data and a Direct Certification measure of poverty, both of which are flawed. What’s shocking about this is that we’re ten years into “data-driven accountability” (17 if you start counting from No Child Left Behind) and the data is still garbage. The education technocrats have had 17 years to produce data that’s reliable enough for high stakes decisions and they’ve failed time and time again.

  • There’s no checks to make sure that funding for sub-populations actually gets spent on those populations. The money earmarked for advanced students can be spent on toilet paper. The same applies to the money given to schools to supplement the education of low-achieving students. It’s currently being used to provide basic school needs, not extra services to students that need them.

  • Asking a principal to be an instructional leader and a fiscal manager are two distinct skills and it’s too rare for a principal to have both. Principals who can do both are lauded by Central Office and local and national education groups. But shouldn’t every child deserve a highly effective principal? Maybe we’re asking too much of principals, and we need to scale back their duties so that they can focus and excel.

  • The district doesn’t hold trainings for parents and community to understand the Fair Student Funding process. The district claims to value stakeholder input, but they haven’t empowered the people to make wise decisions. Fair Student Funding is hard for parents and educators to understand and it’s very time consuming for parents to have meaningful input. The time and energy cost of learning and participating in this work is too high. As a result, there was low attendance at the FSF forums. Money isn’t our only scarce resource, time and energy are scarce as well. If Fair Student Funding diverts our limited resources from fighting other crucial education battles in this city, is it worth it? We need a simpler funding formula with an easier parent and community engagement process so that we can focus on other things like the statewide fight for funding equity.

  • Fair Student Funding is incredibly disruptive. When school budgets are reset in the Fall, the district’s declining enrollment overall means that more schools are negatively impacted than positively impacted. Late budget shifts disrupt student-educator relationships in the middle of the year, damage community trust, and set a school backwards in its goals.

  • Fair Student Funding especially starves schools in the black butterfly and sets them up for failure and closure. This policy has a disparate racial impact and everyone pretends that it’s colorblind and applied equally.

  • We still don’t even know if Fair Student Funding has a positive impact on student achievement. When asked at the January 16th forum, Chief of Staff Alison Perkins Cohen responded that while achievement in the district had gone up over the past ten years, further research is needed to determine if that was due to Fair Student Funding.

Can we get rid of Fair Student Funding? Dr. Santelises, please see this opportunity to be a visionary leader. Step one of that is learning from the lessons of the past ten years, and not to doubling down on the same mistakes that Alonso made. Funding schools equitably when we don’t have adequate funding isn’t an easy job, and right now I don’t know what a brand new funding strategy would look like. Maybe it is more like a staffing model. That’s not to say bold new ideas aren’t out there. Dr. Lawrence Brown of Morgan State has written about racial block grants in education as a way of simplifying the funding process and promoting racial equity. That kind of bold thinking deserves more discussion. I have faith that this is a policy issue that the school community of Baltimore City can work together to figure out, and I also know for a fact we can do better than Fair Student Funding. The district should withdraw its policy proposal for changes to Fair Student Funding and the School Board should vote to continue having stakeholder meetings with the public.

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