A coalition of parents and community groups has pushed Denver education officials toward revamping the way local schools are funded. Early this fall, Denver Public Schools (DPS) was ready to make some changes but was taking a closer look at the details.
A report published in June by the Metro Organizations for People (MOP)–a federation of Denver schools, religious congregations, and youth and neighborhood organizations–called on DPS to implement weighted student funding, which distributes dollars to schools based on individual students’ needs because of poverty, need for special education, and limited English proficiency.
Urban school districts in Cincinnati, Houston, and Seattle already use forms of weighted student funding.
Grounded in research by University of Washington education professor Dr. Marguerite Roza, MOP’s report on “Unraveling the DPS Budget” notes the school district’s allocation of resources needs greater equity and its budgeting process requires greater transparency. The report finds the current system shortchanges many students in Denver’s high-poverty and bilingual schools.
“There isn’t rhyme or reason to why some schools get more,” said MOP Executive Director Mike Kromrey.
For the past few years, MOP leaders have enthusiastically advocated the ideas behind an innovative school funding model in Edmonton, the capital city of Alberta, Canada, as presented in Making Schools Work by Dr. William Ouchi, a professor in UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. Edmonton schools not only have a sophisticated system of student funding weights but also grant each principal direct control over more than 80 percent of his school’s budget.
“We liked the local school control approach, the entrepreneurial values,” said Kromrey. “Our members thought it made common sense.”
Influenced by Ouchi, a Colorado state legislator attempted to import the Edmonton model but came up short. In 2005, state Rep. Keith King (R-Colorado Springs) introduced legislation to direct school districts to distribute money based on a weighted student formula. Though the bill died in committee, King still strongly supports the idea.
“Weighted student funding puts the resources in the school where the student is being educated,” King said. “With the appropriate funding, the student, teacher, and principal can concentrate on having a full year of academic growth.”
Jessica Buckley, an active MOP member and a teacher at Denver’s Harrington Elementary, has helped to champion the change toward weighted student funding. Ninety-six percent of Harrington students received free or reduced-price lunches, an official measure of poverty, in 2004.
Under weighted funding plans, “The money follows the student and allows those who need it to receive the support,” Buckley said.
Kromrey said MOP changed its expectations about implementing weighted student funding in Denver after meetings earlier this year with superintendent Michael Bennet, members of the Board of Education, and representatives of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA). The group still supports immediate implementation of what it considers an equitable student funding formula, but it has postponed the idea of giving greater budget autonomy to schools.
“We were pushing for a rewards-based process where if principals succeeded they could be given more control,” said Kromrey. After the discussions with system representatives, however, “We were convinced our idea was moving too fast.”
The DPS Board of Education is working to simplify the district’s budgeting process. The board is scheduled to meet to discuss proposed changes in January and February of 2007.
“Everyone can get behind transparency instead of a 60-page budget,” Kromrey said.
The superintendent’s office is working on a more detailed proposal to address possible long-term funding changes.
Beyond the 2006-07 year, MOP leaders hope to adjust the funding formula to dedicate more resources to students with special needs.
“My hope is that in two to three years we can begin to increase the weights and really put the money where it’s needed,” Buckley said.
DPS board member Bruce Hoyt said while he supports the weighted student funding concept, matching personnel costs to student needs will be a challenge. The combination of reliable skills, high energy, and middle-range salary requirements for teachers with six to 10 years of experience would put them in high demand, he said.
“Getting schools to formulate budgets to match these needs would be a logistical nightmare,” Hoyt said.
Hoyt said DPS’s new financial reward for teachers who take on tougher assignments could make the potential alignment “more feasible.” The reward is a feature of Denver’s Professional Compensation System for Teachers, or ProComp, implemented in 2005.
MOP members’ sights are set higher.
“Our best take is that ProComp is a beginning but not enough,” Kromrey said. “When you look at the aggregation of what teachers are paid in economically fairly well-off schools, where more students speak English and are higher-performing, in real dollars those schools are getting more.”
MOP has pushed education reform since 2001, when it engaged parents to advocate for safer schools. “Families started to realize they could get something done and that their voice could be heard,” Kromrey said.
Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.
For more information …
“Unraveling the DPS Budget,” Metro Organization for People, http://www.mopdenver.org
To learn more about weighted student funding, visit http://www.100percentsolution.org