Weighted student funding has become a core idea of both liberals and conservatives. Liberals like the idea because, by their vision, it would push funding to schools that served more disadvantaged populations. These schools have traditionally engaged in less actual spending than more advantaged schools because they employ more rookie teachers, who come with lower salaries. Conservatives like the idea because, by their vision, it will push funding to charter schools that traditionally have received less than equal shares of the local funding for schools. Both groups see weighted school funding as providing more funds to the schools that they focus upon, and both see this as leading to improvements in achievement.
Both groups seem naïvely wrong. The liberals ignore the fact that local schools have no control over salaries of teachers or, for the most part, over the choice of teachers. Thus, the added funding does not allow them to make choices that improve the quality of teachers in a world where the quality of teachers is unrelated to the salary of individual teachers. The conservatives, focused on the funding from the state, ignore the fact that local funding would not necessarily flow with the child under a weighted student funding system, so that redirecting the state funding would not achieve the parity that they seek for charter schools.
Both positions also rely upon an untested view of politics that would lead to improved allocation of resources if only the actual flows of dollars were more apparent and more real. We have no reason to believe that their vision will occur.
The overall idea of weighted student funding – that some students require more resources than others because they require extra educational services – makes sense at the district level. But, hoping that this creates the right incentives if it is taken to the individual school seems naïve.
The thing that both liberals and conservatives really desire is improved achievement of all students. Thus, it is much more likely that rewarding success, rather than relying on a naïve model of political reaction, would work.
Here is the simple idea (developed in a book by Alfred Lindseth and me, Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses) that changes incentives. Provide funding to districts that adjusts the base amount for each student – disadvantaged students, English language learners, or special education students. But, having provided funding that recognizes different needs to provide additional services, reward districts that promote more achievement of their students. And, don’t reward students who fail to attain higher achievement. In other words, provide incentives for greater achievement and do not reward failure.
Schools will not improve until there are greater incentives for improving student achievement.
Eric Hanushek is the Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. He has been a leader in the development of economic analysis of educational issues. His most recent book, Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses: Solving the Funding-Achievement Puzzle in America’s Public Schools, describes how improved school finance policies can be used to meet our achievement goals.