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.

More money

‘We need the funding, and so do our kids.’ Colorado teachers take to the streets for Amendment 73

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer
Denver teachers line Colfax Avenue to urge voters to approve Amendment 73, a tax increase to raise money for education.

Waving “Yes on Amendment 73” signs, Denver teachers formed red-shirted clusters along Colfax Avenue Friday afternoon.

“We’re just trying to get people to support teachers,” said Danette Slater, an elementary teacher at Academia Ana Marie Sandoval in northwest Denver. “We need the funding, and so do our kids.”

Amendment 73 would raise Colorado’s corporate tax rate and the personal income tax rate on people earning more than $150,000 a year to generate $1.6 billion a year in additional funding for education. The state’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires that voters approve any proposed tax increase. Two previous attempts to raise taxes for education have failed.

“Girls Just Wanna Have Funding,” said Slater’s handmade sign.

The Denver demonstration was one of 27 teacher actions around the state, as the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, prepares for a major push during October to rally support for Amendment 73. Organizers with the Denver Classroom Teachers Association had hoped for a larger turnout, with as many as a thousand teachers lining Colfax from East High School to the Colorado Education Association headquarters at Grant Street and Colfax near the Capitol. Instead, a few hundred teachers formed a series of small groups at key intersections.

Denver Public Schools may have dampened turnout with a memo to building principals saying that teachers who wanted to leave school early to engage in advocacy must take unpaid leave and giving principals the authority to deny leave and discipline any teachers who left anyway.

The small numbers did not dampen the enthusiasm of the teachers and community members who were demonstrating.

“It’s a Friday afternoon at the end of a long week,” said M.J. Jobe, a parent volunteer in the Cherry Creek district who was demonstrating with her husband Jarrad Jobe, a Denver Public Schools teacher. “Everyone is here because they care about kids and care about education. If we vote no, what kind of message are we sending to our kids?”

Passing drivers honked their support, and the teachers cheered in response.

Luke Ragland of the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado opposes Amendment 73. He said the tax measure has been sold to teachers as a way to raise pay, but there’s no guarantee that the money will reach teachers’ paychecks or improve educational outcomes for students.

Ragland points to trends over the last several decades in which teacher salaries have decreased when adjusted for inflation, even as more money has gone to schools. Administrative costs eat up a larger share of school budgets, something Ragland believes is driven as much or more by growing regulation at the federal and state level than by high administrative salaries.

“The trend is bad, and just adding more money is not going to change those trends,” he said. “The problem is real, but the solution that Amendment 73 offers is not.”

PHOTO: Aurora Education Association
Aurora teachers demonstrate in support of Amendment 73.

While education funding has increased in recent years with the strong economy, Colorado lawmakers have withheld roughly $7.5 billion from schools since the Great Recession. Colorado currently ranks 28th among U.S. states in per-pupil funding and 31st in the country for teacher pay, but the competitiveness of its teacher salaries – the difference between teacher pay and the wages earned by other professionals with similar levels of education – is among the worst in the nation.

Like many Denver teachers, Jarrad Jobe, a science teacher at Denver Center for International Studies Baker, has a lot of unanswered questions about administrative spending in the district. (Denver administrators, for their part, have tried to reassure the public with new online budget tools.) He has 35 students in each class, and his classroom doesn’t have a proper whiteboard. Jobe believes too much money gets spent on “middle management,” but he also believes the entire pie needs to get larger. Everything has gotten more expensive, and school funding hasn’t kept pace, he said.

M.J. Jobe has a close eye on Cherry Creek’s finances from her seat on a parent advisory committee. Jobe believes the wealthier suburban district is well run and transparent about its spending, and its teachers are among the highest paid in the Denver metro area. But teachers don’t have money for field trips, and the band program exists only due to the private fundraising efforts of parents, she said.

Dakota Prosch, who works with Slater at Sandoval, said she’s relying on promises made by the Denver school board that teacher pay will be a top priority if Amendment 73 passes. Opponents of the measure also fear higher taxes will hurt Colorado’s economy, but Prosch said struggling schools and teachers looking for better opportunities elsewhere will also hurt the economy.

“You can’t have good schools without good teachers, and you can’t have good teachers when across the border you can earn $10,000 more and be in a low-cost area,” she said. Teachers in Wyoming have much higher average pay than their colleagues in Colorado.

Standing nearby, Becka Hendricks said the idea that new revenue will go to ever-increasing administrative costs is one of her fears, even as she demonstrates in favor of Amendment 73.

But at the end of the day, she believes schools need more money. Hendricks, who teaches math to students aged 17 to 21 at Emily Griffith High School, said too many schools don’t even have basic materials or the support staff that students need to be successful. Class sizes are too large, and teacher salaries are too low.

“When we fight for these things with the district, the district’s answer over and over again is, ‘We don’t have the money,’” she said. “If this passes, we can say, ‘We know you have the money.’”

where the money goes

The fight for teacher raises and 4 other takeaways from our IPS referendum forum

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Panelists at the Chalkbeat forum on the IPS tax referendums.

Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Rosa Vazquez had a point to make, and at its core, it was simple: “We need more.”

“It’s difficult when we attempt to send a student to go have a conversation with a counselor and the counselor is too busy, overwhelmed,” said Vazquez, an English as a new language teacher at Arsenal Technical High School, which she said is struggling to serve students who transferred in when the district closed three other campuses last year. “We need more counselors. Our teachers need smaller class sizes.”

Vazquez was one of five panelists gathered Thursday for a forum hosted by Chalkbeat, WFYI, the Indianapolis Recorder, and the Indianapolis Public Library to discuss two tax measures on the ballot in November aimed at raising more money for the school system. One referendum would raise $220 million to pay for operating expenses. The second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements.

The panel also featured IPS Board President Michael O’Connor, IPS chief financial officer Weston Young, Indy Chamber chief policy officer Mark Fisher, and Purdue University professor Larry DeBoer.

The success or failure of the referendums will have far-reaching implications for the cash-strapped district for years to come, reshaping the education of more than 30,000 of students.

We have five takeaways from the panel.

  1. Boosting teacher pay is the central issue

Teacher pay is the focal point of the referendum to raise operating funds for Indianapolis Public Schools. On the panel, nearly everyone agreed that the extra money needs to be used to increase teacher salaries.

Vazquez said her colleagues often have to work second jobs to support their families. Low pay also leads many teachers to leave for other districts, and students ultimately suffer from high turnover, she said.

“Our students are important,” Vazquez added. “They do matter. They do deserve a chance. And being an inner city should not be a downfall for them.”

Many teachers in the district still make less because of pay freezes during the recession, and to make up for the difference, Vazquez said the district may need to give dramatic raises of 10 percent or more.

Young also pointed to one reason pay may be lower in Indianapolis Public Schools than in many of the surrounding school systems. Most of the districts in Marion County have successfully passed referendums to increase school funding in recent years, he said.

“It’s hard to compete for wages and retain high quality teachers when everybody around you has increased their cash flow and you haven’t,” he added.

O’Connor said the board is aiming to ensure its teachers are among the highest paid in Indiana. He hopes the referendum funding gets the district close to that point. “We’re committed to making sure the money generated goes to teacher salaries,” he said.

  1. There are areas of disagreement

How much money to send to innovation schools, which are part of the district but run by outside nonprofit and charter operators, was the most contentious issue at the forum.

The teachers in those schools are not employed by the district, so they would not automatically benefit from a proposed pay raise funded by the referendum. But the district will send some of the money raised to innovation network schools, and many of those schools will also benefit because they receive services, such as special education, from the district.

If the district wins support for the tax measures “traditional public schools with this referendum should be priority,” said Vazquez.

O’Connor acknowledged that the district has limited resources to give schools. He argued that innovation schools are a good strategy that is improving outcomes for students. And, he said, the district is still fully committed to traditional schools in the district.

“We’ll continue to make those investments at the teacher level and at the classroom level,” O’Connor said.

  1. Even if the referendum passes, the district is still expected to make huge cuts

The $272 million in additional funding the district seeks is substantially lower than the district’s initial requests, which amounted to nearly $1 billion combined. The lower request is the culmination of months of wrangling between the district and Indy Chamber.

The business group became deeply involved in the effort because its members had concerns about the initial request, Fisher said. “There were concerns about the viability of the referendum — whether it would actually pass,” he said. “We did not want to see the referendum fail.”

In part, the district was able to lower its request by making more optimistic projections about future funding, Young said. But for the new, reduced request to work — and for the district to find money for substantial pay raises — Indianapolis Public Schools must make drastic cuts to its expenses. Those could include closing schools and relying on public transportation for high schoolers instead of yellow buses.

Ultimately, the goal of the chamber’s proposal is to improve the quality of the district and set it on a “sustainable fiscal path,” said Fisher. “We can’t continue to have this manage by crisis.”

  1. Safety is top of mind

Much of the discussion was devoted to the operating referendum, which will help pay for daily expenses such as salaries. But the district is also pursuing a $52 million capital referendum that will be used to pay for building improvements, primarily designed to make schools safer.

In the wake of school shootings like the one in Noblesville, school districts are turning to referendums to raise money for safety improvements, DeBoer said.

“Every time we have an event like in Noblesville it alerts people to the need for safety, and it’s the world that we live in,” he said.

In Indianapolis Public Schools, the referendum would pay for safety improvements including secure entrances, new fire safety systems, and improved emergency communication systems.

Because many of the district’s buildings are more than half a century old, retrofitting is more expensive but it is still essential, said O’Connor. “The vast majority of our capital investment is in safety,” he said.

  1. Tax referendums may be the new normal for Central Indiana

Hoosier schools have almost exclusively relied on state funding in recent years. State lawmakers capped how much local governments could collect in property taxes in 2010, and those funds can now only go toward things like construction or transportation — not salaries. But voters can decide to override those caps in their communities.

Across Indiana, 60 percent of school districts have never tried a referendum, said DeBoer, who studies referendums. In Marion County and the surrounding suburbs, however, property tax referendums have become the new normal.

“The passage rates have been increasing over the last 10 years,” he said. All the referendums on the ballot in May passed. The economy is improving, district campaigns are improving, and “perhaps the public is coming to accept that is part of … the normal way we fund schools,” he added.

Watch the full forum