Weighting for Success in Philadelphia?

Posted on February 23, 2009



Once again, efforts to reform Philadelphia public schools are in the news, and one item that remains at least a significant part of that reform package is a proposal to use a Weighted Student Funding formula to improve equity in resource allocation across schools within the Philadelphia public school system. Here’s the link to a recent story:

http://www.philly.com/inquirer/education/20090223_District_to_reveal_plan_for_revamping_schools.html

Let me be absolutely clear that I am not opposed to Weighted Student Funding per se. What I am opposed to, and have been very vocal about, is the overselling of Weighted Student Funding as a panacea for both within district equity concerns and for decentralized management of schools and school systems.

Let me start here by clarifying that Weighted Student Funding and decentralized management are two separate issues that are often purposefully entangled when presented by pundits. Indeed, having a well defined school based allocation formula can enable decentralization of decision making to building principals. I offer (reiterate) three potential concerns here regarding weighted student funding coupled with decentralized management, specifically regarding Philadelphia.

1. It remains very difficult if not entirely infeasible for large urban school districts to successfully tilt their internal playing field (across schools within district) when those large urban districts remain at a competitive disadvantage regarding financial resources compared to surrounding districts competing for teachers on the same labor market.

In no major city in the nation is this concern more true than in Philadelphia (with Chicago running second). In relative terms (urban core per pupil spending relative to surrounding districts), Philadelphia has consistently been the least well funded urban core district in the nation for quite some time… falling in some years as low as 76% of surrounding district spending (using the NCES labor market definition).

In my recent work on Texas and Ohio cities, none of which are as poorly positioned as Philadelphia, I found that the relative funding of the urban core compared to surrounding districts poses a significant constraint on the urban core district’s ability to reshuffle funding. For example, the lowest poverty, lowest minority concentration schools in the urban core typically are higher poverty, higher minority concentration than suburban schools only streets away. Even before tilting the playing field to move funding out of the lower poverty urban district schools and to the higher poverty ones, the lower poverty schools within the urban districts are already at a competitive disadvantage relative to even lower poverty neighboring schools in adjacent suburbs. This is not to suggest, by any means, that the urban core districts should make no attempt at leveling their playing field, but that the urban district may be unable to significantly tilt their playing field to assist the higher poverty schools. Here is a schematic diagram I often use to describe this problem:

Difficulties in Tilting the Within District Playing Field

Difficulties in Tilting the Within District Playing Field

Here is an example of school level budgets per pupil (elementary schools) in a section of Dallas, immediately adjacent to marginally lower poverty but higher spending schools in Mesquite ISD.

Spending per Pupil in Dallas Schools and Neighboring District

Spending per Pupil in Dallas Schools and Neighboring District

Now, credit should be given to ye ol’ Commonwealth of PA for recently adopting their first, statewide, reasonably organized basic education funding formula (special education remains substantially screwed up), albeit slowly phased in and already under the gun due to state budget concerns. However, the figure below shows that even after first year state support shifts, Philadelphia city school district remains at a significant financial disadvantage compared to districts in Montgomery, Bucks, Chester and Delaware counties (neighbors in the same labor market).

Philadelphia is much higher poverty than neighbors, and still has fewer financial resources!

Philadelphia is much higher poverty than neighbors, and still has fewer financial resources!

2. There is little compelling evidence that large urban districts using Weighted Student Funding are achieving any greater equity in resource allocation across schools when compared with other large urban districts in the same state which do not use WSF.

This was a major finding of my recent and ongoing work. Look, the reality is that any resource allocation formula from state to school districts or from school districts to schools, is subject to political tug-of-war.Whether we’re talking about allocating staffing positions from one school to another, or dollars generated by weights, constituents involved in the process will attempt to figure out which levers on the system can be used to benefit them and then the games will begin. This is how, for example, Cincinnati ends up adopting within its weighted funding formula a larger adjustment for gifted children than for children in poverty. This is how, for example, the state of Kansas had adopted a larger weight for children in “new facilities” (in affluent suburban districts) than for children in poverty or children with limited English language proficiency (prior to recent court rulings). These are the politics of weighted funding systems – and these politics differ little from any other politics which involving shifting finite resources toward some and away from others.

One should not be fooled into believing that Weighted Funding eliminates such games. It merely creates new ones. (see my Art of Inequitable School Funding post)

3. After presenting one critical review of weighted student funding and decentralized governance I was challenged by a skeptic of my work to provide any reasonable argument against the decentralized governance component – on the basis that it is somehow a well understood and broadly accepted fact among scholars that decentralized governance of large urban school districts is necessarily good – always and forever.

In light of the first two points above, consider the following. First, decentralized decision making is and can only be as good as the decentralized decision makers – in this case, the principals of schools to be granted greater control. Now, this issue is largely about equity right? Well, as it turns out, in many urban settings, the principals with the weakest academic qualifications (those who’ve repeatedly failed certification exams, attended academically weaker undergraduate and graduate preparation programs) are leading the schools with the highest poverty and minority concentrations. Some of my earlier work (in Educational Administration Quarterly with Bruce Cooper) indicates a propensity among principals to hire teachers with academic backgrounds similar to their own – a propensity which can work for the positive, or negative.

With leadership quality distributed in this manner across schools within large urban districts, would decentralizing control lead to greater equity? I suspect not. Further, if district resources are relatively constrained as in Philadelphia it remains unlikely that leadership quality may be effectively redistributed (by paying high enough salaries to principals of the toughest schools)  and even less likely that those principals can be provided sufficient resources to recruit and retain the teachers they need.

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So… all of that heavy stuff in mind, I urge caution in making too much of this next round of Philadelphia school reforms and other similar attempts elsewhere. Without sufficient targetted resources to Philadelphia public schools, the district may continue to spin its wheels for some time. I hope not.

Link to recent article: http://www.epaa.info/ojs/index.php/epaa/article/view/158/30

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