School Funding Formula Hijinks

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By Terry Ryan, originally posted on IdahoEdNews.org

The Idaho Public School Funding Formula Committee (a group of state lawmakers, policy makers and education leaders) has spent the last three years convening multiple hearings in Boise and across the state to learn from Idaho educators, school board members, citizens, taxpayers, parents and outside experts what is working and what isn’t working when it comes to our school funding formula. I sat through many of these hearings with other education stakeholders and concerned citizens. I also read most of the documents, reports and surveys generated from this work (see here: 2018 Public School Funding Formula Committee.) My take on things over the last three years was informed in part by a similar school funding reform effort in Ohio in 2013 under Governor John Kasich that I was involved in at that time.

The work in Idaho was driven by the recognition that our public school funding formula is largely archaic. It was adopted in 1994, and needs an upgrade to better serve the diverse needs of our students today and into the future. According to the Education Commission of the States (ESC), Idaho’s “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.”

Remarkably, in a survey of 700 Idaho stakeholders, 50 percent of whom were educators, the ESC discovered “95 percent of the survey respondents do not think the current funding formula works well for Idaho.” These findings reflect what was said and shared at the various Public School Funding Formula Committee hearings I watched as well. Very few people over the last three years defended the current funding formula.

In fact, almost all stakeholders across the state made pleas for significant changes to it. Of 271 Idaho teachers who were asked the question “Do you think the current funding formula works well for all schools in your State?” 264 (97.4 percent) said No! Only 12 percent of school administrators said the current formula works well for all schools. The main criticism expressed by stakeholder was that the current funding formula simply does not provide the flexibility needed by educators to improve learning for all students. Nor does it do anything to really encourage innovation in our schools and classrooms. It is a one-size fits all funding formula that largely dictates how schools are supposed to manage themselves through central decision making by state officials in Boise.

The criticism of the current school funding formula we heard across the state is backed up by achievement trends in Idaho education. Despite $400 million in new spending in recent years our education performance has not improved in any meaningful fashion. Idaho has made no progress in meeting its “60 percent go-on rate goal.” Our SAT scores remain largely flat, and we’ve seen no demonstrable gains in our state reading or math scores, while 97 percent of our teachers have earned top marks on their evaluations.

How might Idaho move these trend lines upward? Money matters and how it is distributed and what it encourages also matters. What the Public School Funding Formula Committee heard from stakeholders and from a series of national school funding experts was a call to put resources in the hands of local schools and districts so that local educators can make spending decisions that work best for their students.

Flexibility in spending is a precondition for improving student learning. The case made in the shared presentations, research and discussion over the last three years was for local control. Local administrators and teachers know what their students need most and should be given the opportunity to direct resources accordingly. The flexibility to decide how dollars should be spent locally needs to be matched by accountability for student outcomes. In short, trust but verify results.

What we see in the current system is an almost singular emphasis on how the dollars are spent, while the results flatline. It is the classic rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic.

What the Formula Committee members have been hearing for three years is that now is the time to flip the formula so state policy makers focus less on how the dollars get spent and more on whether or not the dollars being spent are actually helping improve student learning.

The most recent version of the proposed funding formula presented by the Education Commission of the States to the Committee this week was aptly entitled “Proposed Idaho Local Control Funding Formula.”

With so much support for the effort to upgrade Idaho’s school funding formula expressed over the last three years, and a demonstrable need for change, it was disturbing to read the letter from the state’s three largest education organizations – the ISBA, IASA and the IEA – stating that they have now decided to double-down on the status quo. They wrote that they wanted to fund schools based on enrollment but remove salary-based apportionment (which makes up approximately 80 percent of school funding), while slowly adding weights for new spending. In practice, their proposal would simply drive up the cost of public education without creating the funding conditions that can incent innovations and changes in practice that might actually improve student learning and encourage changes in teaching and classroom practices.

Doubling down on a funding formula that was designed for an earlier generation of Idaho schools and learners is not what our children need today, nor is it what stakeholders over the last three years say they want. These late maneuvers by the education establishment groups seems to be more about keeping their control and influence over education decision making in Boise than it does about improving the conditions for educators and students across the state. Lawmakers should see this for what it is and continue to move forward with a new school funding formula that focuses on flexibility, local control and student outcomes.