student-based budgeting

For the first time, money for Memphis schools will be based on student needs. Here’s how it works.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Principal Wynn Earle greets students at Kingsbury Elementary School during lunch most days.

The children at Kingsbury Elementary School thought it was funny to have a teacher sitting at a tiny desk, working side-by-side with them.

But Dawn Grayson shadowed several students to help her understand how a new way of allocating money could change the way her Memphis school operates.

Grayson has been part of a team at Kingsbury preparing to switch to a school finance model known as student-based budgeting. It’s a key component of Shelby County Schools’ efforts to ensure state and local money is distributed based on student need.

She was looking at how English language learners, students from low-income families, and students with disabilities, spent their day to help her determine the school’s most urgent needs.

“It’s important that we do step back and say, how do we make this more student-centered?” said Grayson, who has taught English learners there for six years. “We can’t figure out their needs unless we walk their walk.”

But whether or not student-based budgeting will actually help solve school inequities remains to be seen.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Kingsbury Elementary School teachers and staff, including two new teacher assistants hired under new funds from student-based budgeting in Shelby County Schools, receive training.

Currently, every school receives money based on student enrollment and the number of teachers it takes to teach those students. The final amount given to a school is primarily based on the teachers’ salaries, and the supplies and resources the school needs. The traditional model usually allocates less money to schools with high-needs students because they generally employ less-experienced, lower-paid teachers.

Under the new method that goes into effect for the 2018-19 school year, every school will receive $3,400 per student. Additional money will then be allocated depending on four factors recently determined by Shelby County Schools: first-time readers, students with disabilities, students who score exceptionally high or low on state tests, and students who often move from one home to another.

Altogether, about $377 million, or a little more than a one-third, of the district’s proposed $1.05 billion budget is dedicated to student-based budgeting. How the rest of the money is spent will still be decided by the district’s central office. Charter schools authorized by the district are excluded from the new formula and will still receive money based on student enrollment.


Read more about student-based budgeting and how other districts, such as Nashville, have transitioned to this model.


At the heart of the funding model is allowing principals to make their own decisions about what kinds of jobs are needed and what materials their schools need. The district’s national consultant, Education Resource Strategies, has trained teams at six Memphis schools for the past two years: Brownsville Road Elementary, Craigmont Middle, Craigmont High, Kingsbury Elementary, Kingsbury Middle, and Kingsbury High.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Lin Johnson, chief of finance

“We see this as empowering principals to make the changes that they think they need to make to promote bottom-up innovation,” said Lin Johnson, who has been the district’s chief finance officer since 2015.

During his three years as principal of Kingsbury Elementary, Wynn Earle didn’t talk much about budgeting because it was never in his control.

“I could want all these positions but I would not have the financial resources to acquire those people,” he said.

With an infusion of about $164,000 under the new model, Earle hired two education assistants and another full-time physical education teacher so that other teachers could have 40 more minutes of planning time every day. Some of the money will also go toward substitutes so that teachers can have more time for training during the school day.

He has hired another bilingual mentor to lead monthly parent meetings with Hispanic families, who make up two-thirds of the student population. Thanks to the new dollars, those meetings will have dinner, and kits to teach parents how to read to their children.

Planning how to spend the money, he said, gave him the opportunity to work more closely with teachers, parents, and even other schools his students will attend, to identify the school’s most urgent needs.

“It made us evaluate ourselves from the inside out,” he said.

Johnson said the public will be able to see how much each school will get before the new fiscal year starts July 1, but as of early August, the district hadn’t released individual school budgets yet. Some schools may see a dip in funding because of the formula or because of an anticipated drop in enrollment. In the first year, a school won’t get more than a 6 percent boost or a 2.5 percent cut, Johnson said, so there won’t be drastic changes in the beginning.

The district will start with principals who have been at their schools at least two years, have a high score on their annual performance evaluation, and whose schools rank three or higher on the district’s five-point report card. Principals will submit applications with a plan on how they will use the money. And over time, the district hopes up to half the budget will be distributed this way. Leaders want to see this year’s results before deciding when to transition every school.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman/Chalkbeat
Chris Caldwell

Chris Caldwell, who chairs the school board’s budget committee, said student-based budgeting needs to be assessed regularly to make sure it’s producing its intended purpose: equity in funding.

Student-based budgeting “can be helpful to identify inequities, but it doesn’t guarantee responses that will eliminate” them, he said, adding the state’s “outdated and inadequate” school staffing formula already puts Tennessee’s largest district at a disadvantage.

Here’s a breakdown of how much money follows students based on the four characteristics prioritized by Shelby County Schools:

Grade level. This is the most common characteristic cited by districts across the nation who use this model. Shelby County Schools will add $1,020 for each student in kindergarten through second grade, and $680 for third- through fifth-graders. That’s a high weight compared to other districts, said Marguerite Roza, a Georgetown University professor who studies school finance.

Johnson said the district put a high weight on younger students because the district is struggling to boost its reading levels. During the 2016-17 school year, just 21 percent of students in third grade were considered by the state to be reading on grade level. That’s far below the district’s goal of 90 percent by 2025.

Students with disabilities. Some costs for students who are disabled won’t be factored into the base amount allotted per student because the district wants to control how federal money and other grants for those students are spent. But the district plans to add $825 for each student with disabilities to contribute more to a school’s administrative and service costs.

Mobility. Instead of using a school’s poverty rate to determine higher need, district leaders want to measure how often students move from school to school, which they say is closely connected to poverty. Each student would garner $340 more for the school. A school’s mobility rate is the number of students who transfer there after the 20th day of school divided by the number of students who attend that year.

Student performance. Achievement on state tests is “one of the most important indicators of student need at a school” according to the district’s proposed budget. Shelby County Schools is hoping to target students transitioning to middle and high school by looking at state test score data for rising sixth- and ninth-graders. Schools will receive $340 for each student who scored below grade level and for each student who scored higher than their grade level on 2016-17 state tests. For elementary schools, that calculation will be based on fourth-graders.

Typically, low-performing students are considered to have the most need in student-based budgeting models that prioritize test scores. But Johnson said the district’s highest achievers also need more supports, such as more advanced courses and ACT preparation, to keep them engaged.

“It’s not just focusing on struggling students,” he said. “There are high-achievers who need to pushed.”

Roza, the Georgetown professor who specializes in this model, said her team does not recommend giving a school more money for students who already are ahead.

“We worry about that because of its equity implications,” she said. “Schools with high performers means that there’s fewer dollars for middle performing schools.”

Grayson, the Kingsbury Elementary teacher, interviewed many of the students she shadowed. She found that students – as well as herself – had little understanding of how money was allocated or spent. She said the new budgeting method gives everyone more opportunity to understand what goes on behind the scenes.

“We hope that it’s a step in the right direction to help students who need it most,” she said.

Piece of the pie

Colorado bill would take back money from state-authorized charter schools

PHOTO: Denver Post
Students at James Irwin Charter Academy in Colorado Springs

A bill introduced in the Colorado House this week would take back money set aside for state-authorized charter schools and return it to the general fund, where it would be available for any purpose.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Cathy Kipp, a Fort Collins Democrat and former Poudre School District board member, would repeal one portion of a key compromise from the 2017 legislative session.

That bill required school districts to share money from mill levy overrides, a kind of local property tax increase, with charter schools that they had authorized. It also said that the legislature should set aside state money for schools authorized by the Charter School Institute, a state entity, to serve as the equivalent of that mill levy money. This money is on top of the base per-pupil funding that goes to all schools, much of it provided by state dollars.

This new proposal doesn’t affect charters that are authorized by districts, which would still be required to share additional local property tax money. But it does away with the fund within the state budget that provides extra money to state-authorized schools.

The Charter School Institute oversees 39 schools serving more than 18,000 students.

It’s unclear whether the bill will get traction. Kipp is the sole sponsor right now, and charter schools have enjoyed broad bipartisan support at the Capitol in the past. Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, is the founder of the New America charter network, which has schools authorized by the Charter School Institute as well as by local districts.

Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run nonprofit organizations. Opponents see them as siphoning students and money from traditional, district-run schools, while proponents argue they provide much needed diversity of school types within the public system and with that, options for parents and students.

The 2017 legislation passed with bipartisan support but divided Democrats, who now control both chambers of the Colorado General Assembly. This is the first legislation of the 2019 session to attempt to roll back gains made by charter schools under previously divided state government.

The 2018-19 Colorado budget includes $5.5 million, roughly $300 per student, for state-authorized charter schools to make up for local mill levy money they don’t get, and the proposed 2019-20 budget calls for that to almost double to $10.5 million. “Fully funding” the charter institute schools — meaning providing them the equivalent of what they would get from local property taxes if they were authorized by their districts — would cost $29.7 million.

Kipp said that with education funding tight, the state cannot afford to share with charters. She calls the plan to spend state money to make up for local property tax revenue “taxation without representation.” Mill levy overrides are approved by voters in those school districts, while there is no equivalent special tax approved statewide to help charter institute schools — or any Colorado schools, for that matter.

“You have a person who has never voted for a mill levy override, and their school may be drowning, and their tax dollars are going to another district,” she said.

Mill levy overrides, which can amount to thousands of dollars per student, provide important supplemental funding in districts where voters agree, but they’re also a major contributor to inequity in Colorado school finance. In the case of charter schools, the 2017 legislation means district-authorized schools benefit from those dollars, and state-authorized schools get some extra money from the state.

But district schools in places where voters have turned down requests for additional property taxes don’t get any additional money, even as the state continues to withhold money from schools under the budget stabilization factor.

Terry Croy Lewis, executive director of the Charter School Institute, calls the bill “very disappointing.” The extra state money, known as the mill levy equalization fund, represents a fraction of the money that charter schools would get if they had district authorization and access to mill levy overrides. It’s also a tiny fraction of the more than $7 billion that Colorado spends on K-12 education.

“We’re starting from way behind on funding equity,” she said. “To say that any charter is getting more than their share is just inaccurate. We still have a long way to go.”

Lewis sees the taxation question differently than Kipp. Parents are paying higher property taxes to support their district schools, while their children in charter schools don’t see the benefit. Meanwhile, charter schools have to pay for their buildings out of operating costs, meaning they have less money for teacher salaries and other educational needs.

At Mountain Song Community School, a 300-student Waldorf charter school in Colorado Springs, the extra $300 per student has allowed the school to hire an additional special education teacher and classroom aides to better serve students with disabilities.

“Our costs are rising rapidly because more and more severe needs students are coming to our schools,” said Teresa Woods, principal at Mountain Song. “Districts have economies of scale. As a single school, we’re doing the work that a district would do to meet our students’ needs, but we don’t have any resources to pool.”

“If the mill levy funds were cut, it would definitely cut into our ability to meet the needs of all our students, and we’re mandated by law to serve those students, including severe needs students,” she added.

At the Thomas MacLaren School, another Colorado Springs institute-authorized charter school serving roughly 800 students, administrators have treated the mill levy equalization money as one-time funds and used them for building upgrades, but if that money were reliable each year, the school would raise teacher salaries, which lag far behind those in the surrounding school district, Executive Director Mary Faith Hall said.

The Colorado Early College network, serving more than 2,900 students on campuses in Colorado Springs, Aurora, Parker, and Fort Collins, has used the additional money to provide bus transportation, to increase teacher salaries, and to cover some tuition, books, and fees for college courses. The early college model helps students earn college credit while still in high school, with many students graduating with both a high school diploma and an associate degree.

“The CEC Network of schools would be devastated to lose this funding” Chief Executive Administrator Sandi Brown wrote in an email.

Kipp said these financial challenges don’t mean the state should kick in more money than it does for district-run and district-authorized schools. These issues are embedded in the charter school model, she said, and it’s not the state’s job to solve them.

“Charter schools have always said they can do better for cheaper,” Kipp said. “So do better for cheaper, and don’t ask for disproportionate share.”

behind the budget

With House plan that adds money for vulnerable kids, all Indianapolis districts would gain

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Perry Township, along with the other Marion County districts, would see more per-student funding if a House budget proposal moves forward.

Every district in Indianapolis is tentatively slated to get more state dollars per student under House Republicans’ 2019 budget plan released this week — exceeding some school leaders’ expectations.

For the most part, new money added to the budget to fund each student along with higher enrollment estimates are driving the increases. But even though some districts are projected to lose students, they would still get more money because of changes to Indiana’s funding formula that add money for vulnerable students and because lawmakers put more money in the budget overall.

“I just didn’t think they’d be able to reach that level when they started the session,” said Patrick Mapes, superintendent in Perry Township. “It’s very much appreciated.”

In Indianapolis Public Schools, the city’s largest school district, per-student funding is expected to go up more than 3 percent to $8,029 from $7,764. Overall, the district would see about 4 percent more in total state dollars. Compared to other districts, IPS receives more per student in part because of the number of students there from low-income families. Having more English-learners and students with disabilities can also bring in additional funding per-student.

“There are still too many moving pieces in other parts of the comprehensive budget proposal to get a clear picture of what this will ultimately mean for our students and employees,” an IPS spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.

The estimates are far from final, as the Senate will still offer its own budget draft and lawmakers will eventually have to come to a compromise. But the House draft, which easily passed out of the Ways and Means Committee on Monday, will likely see support from the full House in the coming week.

This year, district funding estimates could be even more volatile because of problems with a calculation that drives extra aid to districts with larger shares of students from low-income families. It’s unclear how this might affect schools because the calculations were not changed from last year.

“We used the numbers that we felt gave schools the most realistic proposal,” said House Ways & Means Chairman Todd Huston. He said that he was not sure when more accurate projections would be available, but House Republican staff was working with other state agencies to dig into the problem.

The budget draft proposes increasing Indiana’s contributions to schools by $461 million — or 4.3 percent — through 2021, a little more than increases in years past. The basic per-student funding that all districts get would jump from $5,352 per student this year to $5,442 per student in 2020, and $5,549 per student in 2021.

House lawmakers also made some big overall changes to how schools are funded that do more to support some of the state’s most vulnerable students.

Funding for preschool for students with disabilities increased for the first time in more than 25 years, going from $2,750 per student currently, to $2,875 per student in 2020, and $3,000 per student by 2021. In 2018, about 13,000 students qualified for the program, costing the state about $36 million. The increased grant would up those totals to about $37.3 million in 2020 and $39 million in 2021.

The budget draft would also send more money to educate students learning English as a new language for the fourth year in a row. Last year, lawmakers set aside about $32 million. Over the next two years, there’d be more than $40 million available for grants, at $325 per student, up from $300 previously.

Higher per-student grants for English learners would help the district shift more money to teachers and other employees, said Mapes, the Perry Township superintendent. Raising teacher salaries has been a hot topic during this year’s legislative session, and while money is not specifically earmarked for raises in the House budget plan, Mapes said it doesn’t need to be.

“That’s local control,” Mapes said. “We have an elected school board whose job is to make that decision for each school corporation in the state. It’s not the job of the legislature to direct down a salary schedule.”

In Beech Grove, the funding forecast is slightly less optimistic — the district is the only in the county projected to lose funding overall through 2021, by a small margin of less than 1 percent. That’s driven by a projected loss of about 116 students out of a total of 3,033.

“We all need to take three steps back and not panic because … there’s a factor here that’s real critical — the standpoint that our enrollment has gone up for nine straight years until this year,” said Paul Kaiser, superintendent in the district. Lawmakers “are estimating our enrollment is going to continue to drop.”

Kaiser noted that the district does have a high rate of students transferring in from outside the district — Beech Grove had the second highest rate of students transferring into the district last year, with almost 1,200 students coming in. Like the rest of the county, Beech Grove is expected to get more dollars per student, so if transfers work out like Kaiser expects, the additional money would turn things around. He said he isn’t sure why enrollment was down last year.

“We’re hoping last year’s drop in enrollment was a blip on the horizon,” Kaiser said. “And if it’s not, then we’ll have to decide what we want to do.”

Part of Kaiser’s strategy is going to district voters in the fall to ask them to approve a tax increase — a move many school districts across the state, including IPS, are increasingly making to bring in more revenue.

One group that would see reductions under the House plan were virtual schools and virtual programs operated by school districts — they were cut from 100 percent of what students in traditional schools get to 90 percent, equivalent with students at virtual charter schools.

Lawmakers made the change in response to a rapidly growing virtual school in the Union school district, near Modoc, helped throw off school funding estimates in 2017. Even with the funding cut, budget projections show Union still would receive more state money, driven largely by growing enrollment.

House Republican staff did not confirm whether the change in all district-based virtual school funding resulted in cost-savings for the state, but a fiscal analysis from legislative staff estimated it could save the state about $3 million in 2020.