Reader view: Now is the time for a new school funding formula

Idaho’s current K-12 public-school funding formula is archaic. It was adopted in 1994, and needs an upgrade to better serve the needs of our students today and into the future. Fortunately, Idaho’s lawmakers understand the challenge and seem posed to make necessary improvements. Their efforts to modernize school funding should be supported and encouraged by parents, taxpayers and everyone interested in the future of Idaho and its children.

Terry Ryan

According to the Education Commission of the States the “current funding formula did not contemplate a variety of different learning modalities, the increasing mobility of students and the state’s move toward mastery-based education.”

Nor did it imagine a system of school choice (public charters, open enrollment, magnet schools) where a quarter of the state’s 300,000 or so public K-12 students would attend buildings other than their neighborhood school. It certainly didn’t envision 5,500 students attending school online, or another 9,000 students taking courses through the Idaho Digital Learning Academy.

The models of education and learning have changed significantly over the last 25 years, but so too have the demographics of Idaho’s students. In the fall of 1994 there were about 230,000 K-12 students enrolled in Idaho’s public schools. In 2016 Idaho’s K-12 enrollment topped 300,000, and the National Center for Education Statistics predicts 325,000 students by 2022.

Population and household projections from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that Idaho’s school age population is becoming increasingly urban, more racially diverse, and increasingly from lower income households. Between 2000 and 2014, the state’s Hispanic population grew by 93 percent, while Idaho’s overall population expanded by only 26 percent. More Idaho children are in poverty. In 2008, 16 percent of the state’s children lived in poverty. That number grew to 19 percent in 2014.

A lot has changed since 1994, and this change is accelerating. It is past time for Idaho to craft a school funding formula that not only better meets the needs of today’s students, but is nimble enough to meet the needs of their children.

In September, Idaho’s “Public School Funding Formula Committee” (select lawmakers, state board representation, and state superintendent Sherri Ybarra) heard from school finance expert Marguerite Roza on ways the Gem State can modernize its funding formula. Roza demonstrated how the current formula fuels inequity across schools, limits flexibility for educators, impedes innovation within schools, inhibits local accountability for results, and is overly complicated and lacks transparency.

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Idaho’s children and schools would benefit by moving towards a student-based system of funding that incorporates three basic principles:

  • Full state funding follows the child to the public school that he or she attends;
  • Per-pupil funding amounts are “weighted” according to children’s individual needs and circumstances; and
  • Resources arrive at school as real dollars that can be spent flexibly with an emphasis on results, rather than on predetermined and inflexible programs or activities.

Other states are moving in this direction. They are doing so because a student-based funding formula can:

  • Better ensure equity for students by directing more funds to schools that serve high proportions of disadvantaged children, regardless of where they live or go to school.
  • Allow school-level leaders and educators to allocate resources in ways that meet the needs of specific children, aligning authority and responsibility in a performance-oriented management system.
  • Be flexible enough to withstand the test of time and support innovations such as mastery-based education; and
  • Be simple to understand and transparent for educators, policy makers and taxpayers.

There is support for the basic principles behind student-based funding among the state’s educators. In late 2016 the Idaho State Board of Education surveyed Idaho’s public school educators, administrators and school board members. More than 87 percent of respondents favored “giving schools more flexibility to decide how to spend their money,” while the same overwhelming percentage favored “providing extra funding to schools with children living in poverty or having special needs.”

Because of the political and technical challenges of implementing a new funding formula, Idaho’s move towards a student-based funding system cannot be implemented overnight. But, the state’s lawmakers and policy makers are right to start addressing the toughest issues like how to set weights for different student needs, and how to transition to a new approach. The time for action is now.

Written by Terry Ryan, the CEO of the Boise-based education nonprofit Bluum and the Idaho Charter School Network.

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