Thursday, July 13, 2006

Bad Ideas In School Funding

Via Harry at Crooked Timber we find a link to an organization proposing a school funding method which they refer to as Weighted Student Funding (WSF). As usual, I try to be open-minded when I critique things, but this is an obviously horrible idea right from the start:
Principle 1: Funding should follow the child, on a per-student basis, to the public school that he/she attends.
No, no, no nononono... I read that over a couple times, just to make sure I wasn't missing anything, but it really is saying exactly what it looks like its saying. Explain to me how, exactly, this is going to fix a failing school? Let's assume, as these people seem to do, that more money allows a school to "do better", for some definition of that phrase. The obvious implication here is that, in order for a failing school to do better, it needs more money. Under the WSF scheme, however, you get more money by attracting more students. Almost by definition if you are capable of attracting more students then you are not a failing school. Here's how this plays out:
  • School A sucks.
  • Child number 1 leaves school A, because it sucks, for school B, which sucks less.
  • Part of A's budget migrates to B along with the child.
  • School B gets better, because it has more money.
  • School A gets worse, because it has less money.
What's perverse about this, however, is that School A is trapped in a downward spiral. In addition to variable, per student costs schools also have fixed costs for facilities etc. The marginal cost of a student's departure gets larger as each student leaves, since the school's fixed costs must now by covered by the funding of a smaller number of students. As students leave the expenditures for maintenance increase as a percentage of total expenditures, squeezing out things which can (theoretically) scale with the number of students, such as staffing levels. Student flight causes the school to get worse, faster, which triggers more student flight. So yeah, not a really great idea. I was also, while reading the article, waiting with baited breath for how they were going to fund gifted and talented students under a scheme where funding is tied to a student's needs. Here's what they had to say about that
Most districts that have implemented weighted student funding assign higher weights for:
  • students from low-income families
  • English language learners
  • students with disabilities (including different weights for different types of disabilities)
  • students with previously low test scores
But other categories could also be weighted higher, such as:
  • gifted and talented students
  • returning drop outs
  • migrant students
  • students who have changed schools
One of these things is not like the other. We have seven instances of increased funding for students who are relatively disadvantaged and one instance of increased funding for students who are at a relatively advantaged. Try as I might I can't come up with a coherent funding principle which allows you to fund students in this manner. If you look at their proposed weighting criteria you find that, when they aren't essentially arbitrary ("[n]egotiation and debate to arrive at consensus") they argue against weighting G&T students highly (market valuation, expert costing). Frankly, it looks to me like they just tossed in "gifted and talented students" because someone was going to ask about them1. Which, I think, highlights a problem with the weighting system. Assuming that most people favor spending more money per pupil on G&T students (I assume this is the case, since the WSF people saw fit to include them in their list of special groups) then the WSF system is incomplete at best, because it can't fit this preference into its weighting framework. This, of course, leads one to ask why people favor spending more money on G&T students? Pragmatically, I suspect that they implicitly recognize the relatively high RoR to society of investing in these students. But if you base funding on RoR then how can you justify spending on disadvantaged students where the RoR is relatively low? All of these questions point to the same conclusion, that the WSF people (and society as a whole) needs to seriously reexamine how funds are allocated, since right now there doesn't seem to be a unifying principle behind this allocation.
1 Full disclosure, I was a G&T student and am very much in favor of funding such programs.

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