Weighted Student Formula Yearbook, 2019
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Policy Study

Weighted Student Formula Yearbook, 2019

Examining 20 school districts that have implemented backpack funding and the 10 school empowerment benchmarks they should aspire to meet.

Public funding systems for education continue to move toward a new “school funding portability” framework at both the state and district level. This framework is known by many names including “weighted student formula,” “student-based budgeting,” “equitable student funding,” and “backpack funding,” and is a more equitable and transparent way of funding students than traditional funding models where funding is attached to staffing positions.

Weighted student funding (WSF) is unique in that it attaches funding to students based on their individual needs, and allows real dollars to follow children directly to the school in which they enroll—making it a radical departure from traditional funding allocation methods. Across the country, states and districts are adopting WSF. Educators, principals, and community leaders are coming together and choosing autonomy and flexibility over centralized control.

While WSF may look slightly different from state to state and district to district, the main points are the same. Over time, several best practices have emerged, which offer a helpful template for implementing WSF. These best practices are summarized by the following 10 school empowerment benchmarks, which school districts across the country should aspire to meet.

  1. School budgets are based on students, not staffing positions – Schools should receive revenue in the same way that the district received revenue: on a per-pupil basis reflecting the enrollment at a school and the individual characteristics of students at each school.
  2. Central office charges schools actual versus average salaries – Charging schools a district-wide average teacher salary does not adjust for differences in newer teachers versus more-experienced teachers. If one school has 10 first-year teachers and another school has 10 five-year teachers, the school with the newer teachers is essentially subsidizing the school with veteran teachers. By charging schools based on actual salaries, schools with less-expensive teachers can benefit from having money left over to spend at the discretion of the principal on things like teacher training, curricular enhancement, or hiring additional teachers. In this way, charging schools for actual teacher salaries increases equity.
  3. School choice and open enrollment policies – Open enrollment policies empower parents to choose between schools in order to find the school that best fits their children’s needs. School choice also holds schools accountable for performance by revealing which schools are serving students effectively, shown by higher demand for enrollment. In turn, it also incentivizes lower-performing or less-popular schools to improve to attract and retain families.
  4. Principal autonomy over school budgets – Districts that place more of their operating budget into the weighted student formula allocations allow principals more autonomy and more decision-making power so that they can design their school to meet the needs of enrolled students.
  5. Principal autonomy over hiring – Principals have more control over personnel, holding them accountable for their performance and staffing their school in ways that fit their students’ needs.
  6. Principal training and school capacity building – Principal training helps principals to learn management best practices that help them become entrepreneurial leaders of their schools. Several models include principal academies, principal coaches and mentors, district liaisons and networks, and extra help from district finance personnel for budget development.
  7. Published transparent school-level budgets – Parents and taxpayers should have detailed transparent budgets at the school level that show school enrollment and staffing trends. These budgets should reveal the amount of resources that are allocated through student-based budgeting and the amount of resources that are spent at the school level but controlled by the central office.
  8. Published transparent school-level outcomes – Parents and taxpayers should have school-level profiles on a variety of outcomes including overall achievement distinguished by sub-group, value-added achievement gains, achievement gaps, graduation rates, attendance and other school-level outcome measures.
  9. Explicit accountability goals – Districts should have explicit accountability goals and measures for each school. Performance measures are often described in school-level academic plans and detail a school’s specific goals for academic improvement for various groups of students.
  10. Collective bargaining relief, flat contracts, etc. –These enable school districts to negotiate for more autonomy in union contracts to minimize work rules that interfere with school-level autonomy.

The following snapshots list 20 full implementation districts and one state that currently use a school funding portability framework including each district or state’s program name, year of implementation, program type, legal authorization, weighted student funding formula, percentage of principal autonomy, and highlights of best practices used.

Full Report: Weighted Student Formula Yearbook, 2019

Christian Barnard is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation, a non-profit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.