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Get ready for big changes in our government schools

Indiana Policy Review Foundation

When some Indiana schools open their doors this fall things will be different, systemically different in a way that may change the state’s approach to public education. An idea that has been popping up around here for years is a reform that is remarkable in its results and simple in its execution. ‘Weighted-Student Funding’ or ‘Student-Based Budgeting,’ more flexible and transparent than either charter schools or voucher programs, allows taxpayer support to be channeled through individual buildings, teachers, patrons and, most importantly, students.
With pilot programs announced, installation in Indiana is closer to reality. No longer would funds be turned over to district administrative offices, bureaucracies too often driven by incentives other than classroom learning. Funds would be applied directly to the task at hand: teaching children.
In Indianapolis, for instance, a two-to-one imbalance in funding for Crispus Attucks ($5,630 per student) and Broad Ripple ($11,581) existed for years. It was obscured by district budgeting models that grouped funds into categories such as building maintenance or school staff.
If such disparity is to be corrected, politicians need reminded that, ultimately, it’s not their money. It’s the parents’ money. It’s the money of the mothers, fathers, custodial adults and significant others of the children in whose name the state demands so much of everybody’s money.
And it is fair to say that the taxes now taken from us for ‘education’ end up being spent foremost to hire adults, not teach children. Dollars dedicated to schools are distributed on a political rather than educational rationale.
Let us assume, nonetheless, that realpolitik requires the next governor to make certain that every budgeted education dollar be preserved. Even at that, Indiana’s competitive position would be greatly improved if we could only cap education spending at its current level, pegging any increase to the economy.
This spring, the Indianapolis Public School system announced that its three-year strategic plan includes a movement toward student-based budgeting. On a test basis, the system will allocate money to select schools based on the individual needs of their student population. Proponents say it will give those schools more flexibility in their budgeting to provide better support for student achievement. This could provide more equity to schools with higher poverty by giving them more money and a better chance to hire more experienced teachers.
Weston Young, chief financial officer of the Indianapolis Public Schools, tells us that SBB has been a focal point of the district since the fall of 2015. The first year for the new formula will be 2017-18 with budgeting starting this fall.
If an accountant can be enthusiastic, then Young is enthusiastic. He sees the flexibility that the funding formula provides the individual school leadership teams to design the plan that works best for their building.
‘We are looking for them to identify what they do well,’ adds Marques Whitmire, director of special projects in the finance division.
The district may not have much to lose. Its funding is constant even as its costs increase, Young says, its teachers this year receiving their first raise in five years. If nothing else, Young and Whitmire hope the transparency built into the SBB process could improve both the internal and external discussion of how public schools are funded.
Young says administrators are training this summer in preparation for a transition to the new model. Snell says that districts such as New York City and Los Angeles Unified used the pilot program to design guidelines and support structures for implementation that were field-tested before the district-wide program was rolled out.
In Indiana, if all goes well with the IPS pilots, this promising new funding system would be ready to be instituted districtwide and, eventually, statewide.