School Funding Model Pivotal Issue In Budget Debate

School Funding Model Pivotal Issue In Budget Debate
Since 2011, the state has used the prototypical school funding model to allocate money to school districts. However, the Senate Republican proposal calls for replacing it with a per-pupil funding model. Photo: Kennewick School District.

Much of the focus of budget negotiations between state lawmakers that have forced the legislature into a special session are the competing views on how to fully fund basic education, including the allocation method used by the state to send money to school districts.

While the House Democrat proposal maintains the prototypical school funding model implemented in 2011, the Senate Republican plan proposes to funds schools on a per-pupil basis. It’s a move some education experts say would better direct resources to students in need, though some state officials believe education reform is possible using either model.

Report: State Graduation Rate Remains Low

Underscoring the need for academic improvement is a recent update of Building a Grad Nation:Progress and Challenge in Raising High School Graduation Rates by Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University. The research found that Washington’s average high school graduation rate (78.2 percent) continues to lag behind the national average (83.2 percent).

The prototypical school model assigns funding to schools based on a student-faculty ratio, whereby funding is provided for a certain number of specific staff positions based on the number of students attending the school. It also assumes a specific number of students per school and per classroom, depending on the grade. This model was first enacted by the state legislature in 2009 via HB 2261, two years after the McCleary lawsuit had been filed. That legislation required full implementation by the 2018 school year. A follow-up bill passed in 2010 authorized funding for the new model.

Origins Of Prototypical Model

The prototypical model is based on the recommendations of two professors, Lawrence Picus and Allan Odden, from the University of Southern California and University of Wisconsin. In their 2006 study, they wrote: “Washington’s education system…needs to double and triple current performance so that in the short term, 60 percent of students achieve at or above proficiency, and in the longer term 90 percent or more of students achieve at that level. This program and finance study provides a blueprint, though not all the program specifics, for how to do both.”

The prototypical model is favored by state education associations, including the Association of Washington School Principals. Among a 2017 local funding workgroup’s list of recommendations is to keep the prototypical model, though it “should be periodically reviewed and modified over time to meet changing needs.”

“It establishes accountability for local communities, parents, and students to ensure the state is amply funding basic education (BE) and it provides accountability to the Legislature to ensure that districts are not spending levy dollars on BE programs,” the recommendation states.

Critic: Study’s Conclusions The “Stuff of Science Fiction Novels”

However, the results Picus and Odden estimated would be achieved through the prototypical model “is the stuff of science fiction novels, not research-based school policies,” according to Professor Eric Hanushek, an education researcher at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. In a 2007 critique, he wrote that “after their policies are fully implemented in Washington, Albert Einstein, were he not participating in these programs, would find himself achieving at or below the state average.”

He added that the school policy recommendations were based on cherry-picking studies that only showed positive results, while they “ignore all the studies of that intervention that show a smaller effect or no effect at all.”

It’s why the state should swap it out in favor of a per-pupil spending model, says Liv Finne, director for education at the Washington Policy Center. She told Lens that “a per-student finance model redirects the focus to what students need – to what are essentially block grants based on the number of students you have and their characteristics.”

“Changing…the way the state funds education matters a lot if the state is trying to help local decision-makers have the flexibility they need to improve, to move resources to where kids need them the most,” she added.

Per-pupil spending is a model also favored by Marguerite Roza, a senior research affiliate with the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington-Bothell, and director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University. In a 2013 article for the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, she wrote that “such a system takes the mystery out of how districts allocate funds to each school and clarifies how funds move when enrollments shift. As students transfer from one setting to another, the funds designated for that student transfer as well.”

“Under student-based funding, school leaders have the opportunity to implement models such as blended learning…to drive better outcomes for their students,” she wrote, adding that “districts with prescriptive staffing formulas can’t hold schools or principals accountable for the performance at their school, given that most of the resource decisions have been decided centrally.”

Questioning The Importance Of Allocation Model

However, Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal believes meaningful achievement can be gained in K-12 through either model, if done properly. He told Lens that the emphasis on the allocation methods are “overplayed either way.”

Because of that, one possible compromise lawmakers might make is a hybrid of the two models, he added. “Keep the base funding prototypical, identify very specific populations that you want to make achievement gains in, drive those dollars out categorically, and put accountability framework together that actually makes districts achieve results in those categories.”

“Targeted or categorical weighting, where you restrict the money – that would begin to have some impact, and that’s part of what we’re (OSPI) trying to do,” he added.

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