By Valerie Bauerlein
School funding has proven resistant to change for a century.
With the education system reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic and
state and local tax revenue -- the main sources of funds -- facing
steep cuts, now could be a time when new ideas for paying for
schools take root.
The predominant funding model for K-12 education is based on
seat time, or how many students are physically present in a
classroom in a traditional school year.
The pandemic has disrupted nearly everything about K-12,
including who is in a school building. It has also shown that
learning can take place virtually, or in small groups, not just in
a classroom for nine months straight.
"We're at an inflection point," says Ross Wiener, executive
director of the Aspen Institute's Education & Society Program.
"What do we need schools to do, and what do we need to do to get
the resources to do that?"
It could prove difficult to change a model that has been static
for decades. School funding is hard to understand, much less
unwind, and governed by a host of restrictions. Many educators and
advocates say they worry that changing funding to incentivize
certain outcomes, for instance, would be inequitable and would lead
to running schools like a business, rather than a public good.
Overall, K-12 spending in the U.S. was $739 billion in 2016-17,
or $14,439 per student, according to the National Center for
Most K-12 schools in the U.S. rely on local property tax for
roughly half of their revenue, a legacy of the days when public
schools were community institutions funded by donations.
Over time, state funding has become a bigger piece of the pie,
driven partly by judges who found that local funding unfairly
benefits students in wealthy areas and penalizes students in poor
ones. Per-pupil funding still varies widely depending on the wealth
of the community where a school is located.
One way to promote change would be for states to loosen
restrictions on how schools spend their allotment, according to
Matthew Joseph of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a
nonprofit created by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
"In the era of less money, there's the possibility that states
will do a new bargain with districts," he says. "They could say,
'We're going to give you less money, but more flexibility.'"
Here are three ways that education funding might look different
a decade from now.
Budget for Student Needs
One model allots money based on a student's individual needs,
with schools getting paid more for kids from poor areas or those
who are struggling to meet proficiency standards, as opposed to
equal amounts for each child.
School principals get increased flexibility on how to spend
money, such as the ability to hire additional counselors or give
performance bonuses to teachers rather than relying on a staffing
formula prescribed by the district. The Atlanta Public Schools
system is one of the larger districts to implement a student-based
budgeting plan, which it did with its "Student Success Funding"
model in the 2018-19 school year.
Some school districts are experiencing pandemic-related
double-digit drops in enrollment as parents put their children in
private schools, choose to home-school or even hold children back a
year. The drop in enrollment may make education officials more open
to a budgeting model not based predominantly on total head count.
Also, academics say the pandemic has shown how much harder it is
for kids with economic or other disadvantages to attend daily
compared with their peers.
Money Based on Mastery
A "learner-validated" model distributes funding based on what
the student learns, as they master different skills or meet
completion requirements. It also means that schools have an
incentive to improve their teaching, because schools get paid more
as learners meet benchmarks.
Texas incorporated this model into a sweeping education-funding
reform law passed in 2019. But many schools are testing online
programs that let students advance to new material as they master
different modules, which could upend the norm of requiring a
student complete a traditional two-semester school year to advance
to the next grade.
New Hampshire has a learner-validated model in its Virtual
Learning Academy Charter School, or VLACS, funded by a state trust
based on the success rate of its thousands of students.
The Hybrid Classroom
There will likely be a mix of online and in-person learning
models that continue after the crisis is over, funded by tax
revenue, offset by tax breaks to parents or supported by public and
Education formerly was almost "parent-proof," with schools able
to educate children with or without deep parental involvement, says
Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown
University. Now parents are listening in on their children's
lessons, checking assignments daily and enlisting supplemental
"If the choice was traditional school or nothing, they thought
traditional school was better," she says, of the in-person,
nine-month school year. "But I think people are starting to realize
there's a lot between traditional school and nothing."
Dr. Roza says she expects learning pods, or small groups of
students doing supervised online learning, to continue in some
form. It is likely that some districts, particularly rural ones,
might go virtual one day a week to save money on transportation and
An example would be Idaho's new "Strong Families, Strong
Students" initiative, granting families up to $3,500 to spend on
tutors, education software and online programs.
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Read the full report.
Write to Valerie Bauerlein at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
November 21, 2020 10:18 ET (15:18 GMT)
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