Student-Based Budgeting Could Jumpstart Montgomery Public Schools

Commentary

Student-Based Budgeting Could Jumpstart Montgomery Public Schools

Amid financial turmoil and struggling academics in Montgomery’s Public Schools, the state of Alabama is stepping in to take over the district and implement crucial school finance reforms. The takeover, State Superintendent Michael Sentance, was first approved earlier this year by the Alabama State Board of Education.

The state takeover in Montgomery will include an overhaul of the district funding formula that will enable more money to follow individual students and grant principals more autonomy over their school budgets. The plan calls for closer relationships between principals and parents, giving public meetings a bigger role for feedback while instituting additional data sharing for added transparency.

Most importantly, the budget reforms transition Montgomery Public Schools to a weighted student funding (WSF) model. WSF, also known as student-based budgeting, is a revolutionary approach to school funding, centered around the simple precept that education funding should follow the child. Most districts distribute funds through staff salaries and categorical programs, leading to per-student funding inequities. Under student-based budgeting, districts fund schools on a per pupil basis, which allows the money to follow the student to whichever school he or she chooses to attend. Each student’s base funding carries additional “weights” for those with greater obstacles to learning, such as poverty or English language learning.

Weighted student formulas combined with greater principal control over funds emphasize flexibility and choice over top-down planning. As hard as it is to believe, most principals have as little as 1–5% of control overschool budgets. Principals know more about the unique problems their respective schools face than anyone else. Alabama would do well to untie Montgomery principals’ budgetary hands so that they can put their local knowledge to better use.

Poorly designed funding formulas aren’t Montgomery Public Schools’ only woe, but fixing theirs will be a big step in the right direction. Superintendent Sentance’s plan may take anywhere from 3–5 years to implement, but whatever the time frame, he should be commended for campaigning for a weighted student formula in the takeover.

Nate Scherer

Nate Scherer is an education policy analyst at the Reason Foundation.