Editor's note: This is the eighth post in Fordham's 2016 Wonkathon. We've asked assorted education policy experts to answer this question: What are the "sleeper provisions" of ESSA that might encourage the further expansion of parental choice, at least if advocates seize the opportunity? Prior entries can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Regardless of exactly how they're funded, schools all over the United States face a basic problem. Many of those serving the most disadvantaged students tend to have the fewest resources.
In a nod to equity advocates, the new federal education law includes a modest attempt to entice school districts toward a solution: weighted funding. The Every Student Succeeds Act includes a pilot program that, in its first three years, would allow up to fifty districts to allocate funding to schools based on the characteristics of students they enroll. Schools would receive more funding for children who have special needs, speak a native language other than English, or come from a low-income families.
Many of the school finance reforms sought by choice advocates, such as true funding portability, didn't make it into the new statute. While the pilot program won't usher in a financing system in which money follows all children to the schools of their choice, it could aid the development of funding systems that more closely tailor the needs of individual students. That would be a development worth watching.
In most school voucher programs, students get roughly the same amount of scholarship funding regardless of their needs or disadvantages. The sweeping education savings account law in Nevada is an exception to this rule, but only to a small degree. The Nevada program would offer all low-income and special needs students roughly $5,800 in scholarship funding; that’s only slightly more than other students, who would get about $5,200. School choice wonks who disagree on things like universal eligibility and voucher regulations can still agree that this is far from ideal. More nuanced weighted funding schemes would improve this state of affairs by putting more money in the hands of students who need it most.
If the education system as a whole begins allocating resources based on individual student needs, voucher programs can start to piggyback on that system when they determine scholarship funding.
For Florida students with special needs, this already exists. The state is one of ten that assign multiple funding weights to students with special needs. A school might receive some extra funding for a student with autism—and even more for a student who has additional disabilities, or an especially acute condition. Gardiner Scholarships*, Florida's ESA program for special needs students, set a default funding level that averages out to about $10,000 for every student (differing only by grade level and county). But some children with more serious disabilities could be entitled to more funding, and their parents can ask to receive up to 90 percent of the amount that public schools would receive to educate them.
If many states already apply multiple funding weights for special needs students, why not apply a similar logic to children with other disadvantages? The educational challenges faced by students from poverty inspired the federal government’s Title I program, even if the execution does not always square with the core objective. Why shouldn’t states themselves follow that lead?
The other reality is that not all low-income students are the same. A child who is also in foster care, has a parent incarcerated, or is three grade levels behind in reading might need more educational support than a low-income child who is performing well academically and comes from a stable household. Barring a Louisiana-style system of school assignment, private schools might be less inclined to serve students with multiple disadvantages unless they have a financial incentive to do so.
The federal pilot allows participating districts to assign funding weights not only to low-income students and English language learners, but also to "students with any other characteristics associated with educational disadvantage chosen by the local educational agency." The "risk factors" that qualify students for the SEED School Miami, Florida's first public charter boarding school, provide examples of such characteristics that might be worth taking into account.
The pilot may encourage more districts to experiment with these nuances and report their progress along the way. The key question is how many will. Some experts are skeptical that the funding flexibility that comes with participating in the pilot will be enough to entice districts to participate.
What's more, there's a case to be made that weighted funding schemes should be pursued at the state—rather than the district—level. The funding gaps between districts may be as serious as the gaps within them. And a district-level pilot is likely to draw few rural districts, which may oversee only a handful of schools each. From a parental choice perspective, most ESA and voucher programs operate at the state level, so that's where weighted funding will need to be implemented if it's going to benefit the children in those programs.
In the long run, the new definition of public education depends on a school finance system in which every child receives resources tailored to his or her individual needs. Such a system holds promise to create more equitable funding and create more powerful incentives against cream-skimming by schools.
If the new federal education law nudges more school systems in that direction, it could eventually prove a boon to the school choice movement. If it doesn't, they might need a stronger push.
*Disclosure: Step Up For Students, which employs the author of this entry, helps administer the Gardiner Scholarship program.
Travis Pillow is the editor of redefinED.