$$ and schools

Memphis philanthropists, school leaders talk funding strategies at D.C. forum

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Philanthropic and education leaders from 16 cities, including Memphis, attended a forum Oct. 5 in the nation's capital hosted by the DC Public Education Fund.

Memphis school and philanthropic leaders were in the nation’s capital Thursday to hear how a local philanthropic group has raised $120 million for school initiatives in Washington, D.C.

The Memphis contingent joined representatives from 16 other cities at a one-day forum hosted by the DC Public Education Fund on its 10th anniversary. The goal was to learn about how private donors have contributed to a decade of growth in District of Columbia Public Schools, its organizers said.

Memphis has an active philanthropic community seeking to improve the quality of public education through Shelby County Schools, the state-run Achievement School District, and the city’s charter schools. Millions of dollars in education grants from national organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Walton Family Foundation also have flowed into the city. This month, the last of a $90 million Gates grant that launched in 2009 for teacher and leader development will dry up for Shelby County Schools. (The Gates and Walton foundations also support Chalkbeat.)

Here’s how $90 million from Bill Gates spurred sweeping changes in Memphis

In recent years, Memphis philanthropists have sought to become more coordinated in their investments through the Memphis Education Fund, formerly known as Teacher Town. It’s considered a younger peer to the DC Public Education Fund, and both act as an intermediaries between their cities’ school systems and philanthropies. The older D.C. organization works closely with D.C. Public Schools to identify needs and fill them in collaboration with foundations.

The forum’s speakers included D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson and two of his predecessors, Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson, who brought sweeping reforms to the district from 2007 to 2016.

The forum was meant to “reflect on a decade of transformation and to celebrate DCPS’ progress as the fastest-improving school district in the nation,” said Jessica Rauch, executive director and president of the DC fund. “Other cities are coming to learn from our partnership model and, we hope, will be inspired to implement some parts of our approach in their home cities.”

That means more than just writing checks. The agenda included strategies for supporting innovations in curriculum, celebrating excellent educators, empowering males of color, and partnering with families to accelerate student learning.

The gathering of philanthropic and school leaders took place at the newly modernized Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, the nation’s first public high school for black students.

Budget Wish List

New York policymakers call for $1.6B hike in school funding, as fiscal uncertainties loom

New York’s top education policymakers asked for a 6 percent hike in school funding Monday — a less ambitious request than last year, which reflects the deep fiscal uncertainties currently looming over the state.

The state Board of Regents’ call for a $1.6 billion increase in its annual school-aid request was less than the $2.1 billion raise it sought last year. The request is meant to inform lawmakers as they head into a new legislative session where they will hash out their spending plan for next fiscal year. But they aren’t bound by the proposal; last year, the state boosted education spending to $25.8 billion — $1 billion short of what the board recommended.

In creating its wish list for the 2018-19 school year, the Regents had to account for serious fiscal challenges facing New York: a $4.4 billion projected state deficit, the looming threat of federal spending cuts, and a Republican tax overhaul that is expected to deal an economic blow to high-tax states like New York.

“In the context of virtually every place where funding comes in, we are seeing substantial cuts,” said State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia during the board’s monthly meeting.

The bulk of the board’s suggested increase — $1.25 billion — is for “foundation aid,” a formula created in the wake of a school-funding lawsuit alleging that New York was shortchanging districts with many poor students. The formula, which provides nearly a third of New York City’s state education money, allocates extra funding for high-poverty districts. (About 37 percent of the city’s overall education budget comes from the state.)

The proposal includes $85 million in additional funding to support students who are not native English speakers. In addition, the board is seeking $25 million for career and technical education and $20 million for prekindergarten programs.

The request also includes funding to carry out New York’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which spells out how the state will evaluate and intervene in schools. That set of recommendations includes $10 million to monitor school culture and bullying.

The Regents’ request is more modest than the $2 billion increase called for by the Educational Conference Board, a coalition of statewide organizations including the state teachers union and groups representing school boards and superintendents. The coalition has said that a $1.5 billion increase is needed just to maintain educational services at their current levels.

Even though the Regents’ request fell short of what the coalition sought, the teachers union praised the board’s proposal on Monday.

“The Regents’ state aid request is a clear statement of support for what New York’s public schools need — a substantial increase in state aid so they may continue their clear progress toward providing every child with an excellent education,” said New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta in a statement.

At the board’s meeting last month, state officials signaled that they might temper some of their requests in light of funding uncertainties at the federal and state level.

New York residents are expected to be hit hard by a federal tax overhaul, which is likely to curtail state and local tax deductions. In response, state and local governments may face pressure to reduce their tax rates — which could cut into school funding. The state is also bracing for the federal government to reduce spending in order to fill the $1.4 trillion hole that would be caused by the proposed tax plan.

At the same time, New York is staring down its own projected $4.4 billion budget gap next fiscal year — which begins April 1 — due to a shortfall in tax revenue. It’s possible that some high-earners are choosing to defer some of their income until Congress finalizes the tax overhaul, said Mark Johnson, spokesman for state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.

The board’s request must be formally approved at the full board meeting on Tuesday.

The state legislature will vote on its spending plan next spring. If lawmakers heed the board’s request, state education spending would reach a record high of $27 billion this year.

School Finance

IPS’ new budget plan is supposed to give more money to poor schools. Here’s how it works.

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson / The Star
IPS School 79 has among the lowest per pupil funding in the district.

A year ago, Indianapolis Public Schools embarked on a radical change: Instead of patching together school budgets based on each school’s programs and challenges, district leaders decided to distribute money through a clear formula based on students’ needs.

The overarching principle was that schools with many poor students should get more from the district than schools with middle-class students — and that principals should get to decide how that money is spent.

Now, the district has revealed how each school fared under the new formula, used for the first time this year, and it’s apparent that the impact has been limited so far.

In large part, that’s because the district made efforts to ensure a smooth transition for schools used to a different way of doing things. The district is also still sending millions of dollars directly to schools based on their programming, not their students’ needs.

As a result, many schools with needy students still got less from the district than schools with more middle-class students, according to budget projections provided to Chalkbeat by the district.

For example, last year nearly half the students at School 79, also known as Carl Wilde, were learning English, and the district projected that 86 percent would be in poverty this year. Yet the neighborhood school on the west side has among the lowest per-student funding in the district. It was budgeted to receive $6,104 per student.

At the same time, the Center for Inquiry at School 70 serves a much less needy population, with a projected poverty rate of 42 percent. But the northside magnet school was budgeted to receive $7,438 per student.

10 highest funded schools per pupil in Indianapolis Public Schools

10 lowest funded schools per pupil in Indianapolis Public Schools

Data provided by Indianapolis Public Schools. Graphics by Sam Park.

Over the last decade, student-based allocation — also known as weighted student funding — has been embraced in urban districts across the country, including Boston, Chicago, and Denver. It’s also similar to the model that the Indiana legislature uses to decide how much districts get in state funding.

In part, the aim is to make sure districts send money to schools based on student needs rather than other factors, such as whether a band program is particularly beloved or a school has an influential parent organization.

It’s a problem Carole Craig, a retired IPS principal who is still a vocal advocate for educational equity, saw in action when she worked for the district. Without clear rules driving budget decisions, powerful principals and school communities would lobby for more, she said.

“It was political,” she added.

Student-based allocation is supposed to help solve that problem by creating budgets using rules and making it publicly transparent how much each school is getting and why. For IPS, that’s beginning to happen this year, with schools getting about 60 percent of their funding through the new allocation formula. The rest of their budgets are still being distributed outside that formula.

How much is your school getting per student?

(The per-student funding figures in this story include the money distributed through the student based allocation formula and other sources. The full allocations were provided to Chalkbeat by the district. Most innovation schools, which are managed by outside nonprofits or charter operators, are not receiving funding through the student-based allocation formula. The funding levels for those schools is available on the district website.)

But as the gap between School 79 and School 70 reveals, there are still big disparities in how much is spent per student. They exist because the school district, like others that have shifted to student-based budgeting, took steps to mute the transition to the new funding system.

The district limits how much budgets can grow or shrink so schools won’t lose too much money in one year, using what it’s calling “transition adjustments.” Plus the district is continuing to give schools extra money for many reasons beyond how many students they have and how needy those students are.

At the discretion of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, the district is propping up the budgets of schools that have struggled academically. Schools are also getting extra money for programs such as Montessori that parents and students choose. The district is also budgeting nearly $1.3 million for schools that would struggle to operate without extra money, typically because of low enrollment.

Finally, the district is providing services outside the new funding formula for students in special education and those who are learning English, because there are legal requirements for meeting student needs. The district also distributes federal funds, which have specific rules, outside the formula.

The impact of all these choices is that some schools with incredibly high needs students are getting shortchanged.

The northside magnet, School 70, receives more than $288,000 in transition funding and nearly $56,000 to support its International Baccalaureate program, an academic approach that emphasizes inquiry-based learning. In contrast, School 79, the neighborhood school serving many immigrants on the west side, is losing out on more than $268,000 it would normally receive based on enrollment and student needs because of the transition adjustment.

Once the transition period is over, that means that School 79 could get a big bump in funding. But it also means that the longer the district takes, the more money the school will miss out on.

The new funding system is revealing funding differences that have long existed, said Craig. But she added, what’s important is what the district does next to make funding fairer.

“I’m going to believe since they’ve spent so much time doing this, there is a plan,” she said. But “how long is it going to take?”

District officials have said that the biggest challenge to student based allocation is declining state revenue. The district simply doesn’t have that much to dole out.

That could change in the future. District officials recently announced that they would likely ask voters to approve a property tax increase of $92 million per year — which adds up to almost $2,900 per student.

It’s not clear how the district would use that cash, in the event that the funding request makes it to voters and they approve.

One of the top priorities, however, is increasing teacher pay, which would likely spread the money across schools without prioritizing those that have comparatively low funding.

“I think it will benefit the climate at every school in the district,” said school board president Mary Ann Sullivan. “It won’t just make things better for a chosen few.”

District leaders also emphasize that the current funding model is not set in stone. It will be reviewed each year, and leaders could decide to change the formula or eliminate some of the outside pools of funding. The school board is expected to review the funding formula for next year this week.

Ferebee told Chalkbeat that he didn’t know how long it would take for the district to increase its use of student-based allocation.

“We want to make sure that we are smart and strategic about how we implement the model,” he said.