How Student-Based Budgeting Can Help El Paso’s Schools


How Student-Based Budgeting Can Help El Paso’s Schools

Clint Independent School District’s budgeting practices and the funding disparities between the district’s schools have become a key issue.

Clint Independent School District’s budgeting practices and the funding disparities between the district’s schools have become a key issue in the school board elections.

The district’s funding system was originally called into question in 2012, when a group of parents, led by Sonia Herrera Marquez, filed suit alleging the district allocated more funds to schools in the Clint area than it did to schools in Horizon City and Montana Vista.

The Texas Supreme Court dealt a setback to Marquez and other plaintiffs earlier this year, ruling they must go through administrative channels before pursuing legal action, but the parents have a compelling case.

Funding data from the Texas Education Agency shows that in the 2014-15 school year, Clint Independent School District (CISD) spent $1,306 more per student at Clint High School than it did at Horizon High School. The funding disparity is especially odd since Horizon has larger percentages of low-income, special education, and English-learner students and an equitable allocation system would send more money for these kids so schools can provide extra services.

Some are blaming the inequities on CISD’s board structure — six of the seven school board trustees live in the town of Clint. Attempts to change the board seats from at-large to single-member, neighborhood-based seats have been unsuccessful. This year, however, candidates for three school board seats include representatives from Horizon City and Montana Vista.

To be sure, it is important for elected officials to be representative of their communities. And Clint High School’s $45 million new campus doesn’t exactly allay concerns about the board’s impartiality. However, CISD’s funding inequities are also caused by outdated budgeting practices that are all too commonplace in public education.

CISD, like most public school districts throughout the country, employs ‘Full-Time Equivalent’ budgeting, which provides schools with a certain number of staffing positions based on rigid ratios. For example, a district might provide funding for one teacher for every 20 students and money for one guidance counselor for every 500 kids. In this system, teachers are treated as interchangeable. Schools are given a staffing allotment, not a budget. This funding system often results in schools in low-income, high-poverty areas ending up with less spending per pupil.

Schools serving low-income communities are more likely to have less experienced, and thus cheaper, teachers than schools in more affluent communities. Research has shown that disadvantaged schools can lose over a $1 million in annual funding as a result of receiving less money for their allotted number of staff positions.

In Clint ISD’s case, Horizon High School employs a less experienced staff than other schools in the district but instead of applying saved funds to things such as additional teachers or classroom technology, it simply loses this revenue.

Fortunately, more than 30 school districts across the US have implemented a fairer budgeting system that CISD can replicate. Cities such as Houston, Denver and Nashville have adopted student-based budgeting, a school funding framework that distributes funding based on a per-pupil formula. The district determines an amount of funding for each student and the school receives the funding for each student enrolled on its campus. Additional money is allotted to schools on with high numbers of students learning English as a second language, special education students, and other high-need student communities.

A primary advantage of this approach is that funding is tied to each student in the district regardless of where they live. It gives principals and schools much greater flexibility in deciding how money can best be spent to serve students. And the system maximizes transparency — it’s simple to determine how much a school should receive and to make comparisons to other schools.

No matter how the school board election plays out, CISD should modernize its funding system.

Student-based budgeting would be a powerful improvement to help the district guarantee that it is fairly distributing school funding for every student, regardless of their neighborhood.