Key Insights from Colorado’s Student-Based Budgeting Districts

Commentary

Key Insights from Colorado’s Student-Based Budgeting Districts

The Independence Institute’s Benjamin DeGrow has released a comprehensive report on six Colorado school districts that use student-based budgeting (SBB). He notes that “While all Colorado school districts are awarded extra funds for each additional “at-risk” student, those dollars do not necessarily follow the students to serve them with staff and programming.” Ultimately, the manner in which funds are pushed down to the school-level is just as important as how they’re pushed down to the district-level.

Most districts transition to SBB in order to improve student outcomes by promoting equity, transparency, and school-level autonomy. However, as this report illuminates, every SBB system is unique. Operational philosophies, human capital, and policy constraints all impact district implementation. Student-based budgeting does not have a one-size-fits-all approach and, like a fine wine, evolves over time.

The chart below highlights some key insights from DeGrow’s report.

District Description Key Insights
Falcon School District 49 Falcon Board of Education overhauled organizational structure in 2011 and operates with four semi-autonomous Innovation Zones. Unlike other SBB districts, uses “programmatic normalizations”, including a negotiation process, to distribute funds. In this sense, lacks a true weighted-student formula that is characteristic of SBB districts.

  • District believes that school leaders should not be introduced to the revenue side of SBB at first (e.g. how schools are funded)
  • Central office strives to play a consultation role in spending decisions
Denver Public Schools Fully implemented SBB in 2007-08 after pilot. The “stair-step effect” caused by traditional budgeting is cited as one reason for transitioning. Has developed a comprehensive funding formula for distributing resources.
  • Train new principals on budgetary leadership
  • Employs eight financial partners who are assigned to specific schools
  • Most principals have either grown to become proficient budget managers or have hired support
  • Ties a share of SBB funds to school performance
Douglas County Implemented SBB in 2008-09 after a two-year pilot. The district is committed to empowering principals as education leaders within their respective buildings.
  • Budgeting system is explicit in desire to give as much decision-making authority as possible to school leaders
  • Schools can carry over funds from year-to-year for local spending priorities, thus avoiding the “spend it or lose it” mentality
  • Highly engaged parent population that helps set priorities
Jefferson County Set to have SBB program fully operational for 2015-16. Goal is to reset everyone to an equitable starting point including greater equity, flexibility, and transparency.
  • Among other things, schools have ability to allocate funds with overtime pay, instructional materials, office supplies, and substitute teachers
  • Negotiated agreements restrict ability to fully empower principals with staffing decisions; however, principals have voice in the positions allocated to them
Poudre Equity and transparency were key driving forces behind adoption of SBB.
  • Lacks a dedicated principal-support system, which has proven to be valuable for other SBB districts
Adams 12 Has been using some “rough” form of SBB for more than a decade. Students are not weighted based on need, with base allocations provided based on school-level. Recently started to “upgrade” its SBB practices.
  • Principals have more autonomy than their average peers, but not compared to other SBB districts
  • District still mandates most positions to schools

Aaron Garth Smith is the director of education reform at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.