School Districts Need a Reliable Source of Funding to Support Economically Disadvantaged Students

Chandra Villanueva

Many of the programs and interventions funded outside of the school finance formulas are directed towards improving the academic success of economically disadvantaged students and those at-risk of dropping out. In 2011, over $647 million for those programs was cut from the education budget; very little of this funding was restored in 2013.

These programs were cut, not because they were individually ineffective, but because it’s easy to cut program that fall outside of the formulas. However, considering the rapid growth in economically disadvantaged students (Currently at 60 percent, the percentage of economically disadvantaged students has grown at twice the rate of overall student growth in the past 10 years.) this hodge-podge collection of programs and interventions might not be the most efficient approach to meeting the needs of this growing population.

In court, one of the challenges to the school finance system is equity, meaning that every child should receive the resources needed to succeed, not that every child receives the same amount of funding. In order to provide an equal opportunity to succeed for all students, the state must be willing to direct greater resources towards the students with the most need. The most efficient way to increase equity in the school finance system for low-income students is to increase the Compensatory Education weight within the formulas, which hasn’t been adjusted since the mid-1980s.

To improve the educational outcomes of economically disadvantaged students, districts need a reliable source of funding and the flexibility to distribute that funding in a way the meets the unique needs of its students. The House Appropriations Committee should broaden their scope and call for a full study of the weights and allotments within the school finance formulas.

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2 Responses to “School Districts Need a Reliable Source of Funding to Support Economically Disadvantaged Students”
  1. Larry Toenjes says:

    Chandra,

    I agree with you in proposing that the system of student weights be reassessed in any future revisions to the Texas school finance formula. Given the percentage of Texas students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, our measure of poverty, the compensatory education weight is the most significant one. I think it now affords a 20 percent add-on to the basic allotment for each such student. My impression, however, is that the additional 20 percent in resources for those students are not focused on the free-lunch students themselves, but rather go to support districts over-all budgets. There may have been some attempt in more recent years to direct and account for those funds separately, but I would be surprised if the linkage was very tight.

    More importantly, however, is what is intended to be accomplished with comp-ed funds? Are they intended to eliminate the performance gap between comp-ed and non-comp-ed students, as reflected in student test scores? If that is the case, there is a major question as to how much that would cost, assuming it were known how to go about it?

    A number of studies have attempted to measure the deficiencies of students entering kindergarten who are from economically and culturally deprived circumstances, as contrasted with “normal” students. One of the usual findings is the enormous difference in verbal ability—vocabulary—between ED and non-ED students. What does it take to overcome this initial disparity? Smaller class sizes, teacher aids, after-school tutoring, psychological services, social workers to work with the parents?

    Some charter schools, such as KIPP, claim that they have genuine success with bringing comp-ed students up to speed. Is it known how much KIPP spends per pupil, including the large amounts of private money that they receive? (One national study found fifty percent greater expenditures by KIPP schools than by the local neighborhood schools.) Perhaps a careful costing-out of the KIPP program, including added expenses to reduce student and teacher turnover that they reportedly experience, and taking into account the additional advantage KIPP and other such charters have by not having many special education students, is needed.

    I personally think that a major factor in KIPP’s success is the relative lack of student behavioral problems that they must contend with. The combination of parental contracts (suggesting very committed parents) and the ability to expel students who habitually misbehave give KIPP a very strong advantage over a typical public school. Several papers have been written recently on the topic of the impact of student misbehavior on classroom performance. It is a very difficult topic to deal with, and it does not seem to be well documented. For whatever reasons, there do seem to be more difficulties with student behavior among economically disadvantaged students. Good teachers may be able to contend with one or two students who tend to exhibit disruptive behavior, but even the best teachers cannot deal successfully with more than a very few such students in the same classroom. In my opinion disruptive student behavior is the main reason teachers prefer not to teach in inner-city schools. The result is higher teacher turnover in those schools and fewer average years of teacher experience, statistics frequently cited. Schools that have high proportions of students with behavior problems should probably have drastically lower average class sizes, abundant resources for counselors and parent advisers, and more after school programs. Until the full extent of the effects of poverty are acknowledged little progress on “closing the gap” will occur. In the meantime, the schools and especially the teachers in such schools are said to be inadequate, the drumbeat for more charter schools and vouchers continues, and the interest in genuinely improving, even saving, the public schools continues to erode.

    An immediate difficulty in comprehensively and effectively overcoming the effects of poverty on student performance is that either substantial new resources would likely be required, or resources would have to be reduced in schools with low levels of economically disadvantaged students.

    At least one state, Illinois, has a sliding scale comp-ed weight, with the weight increasing in districts with higher proportions of such students. As I recall, the weight went from zero and capped out at 0.75. There is some logic in this.

    I would also suspect that increasing the formula weight to adequately deal with comp-ed students would also require a review of the small and mid-size district element of the formula. The smallest districts already get a big boost in per-pupil funding. They would probably not need a large additional amount for comp-ed students also. But changing the small or mid-size district formula would open a political can of worms.

    Another approach in determining an adequate funding level is to carefully review how much affluent families pay to send their children to top-tier private schools. It would seem that the amount needed to educate a child from a well-off, stable, upper-middle-class family would be the MINIMUM needed to adequately educate a student from much less favorable circumstances, at least if equity is the ultimate goal.

    Sincerely,

    Larry Toenjes

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