Following the Dollars to the Classroom Door
Why and How Effective Student-Based Budgeting Must Be Linked with Strategic School Design
Jonathan Travers and Courtney Catallo
In the spring of 2014, the principal of the K-8 Hannah Gibbons STEM School faced some common challenges. Dr. Tamea Caver wanted to improve her K-2 students’ reading scores—to ensure they would meet the state’s “Third Grade Guarantee” of reading proficiency—and she felt her teachers didn’t have enough collaborative planning time to fully emphasize STEM and project-based learning.
In some school districts, Caver would have been limited in how she could respond—maybe using discretionary funds for professional development workshops or buying a new literacy program. But instead, Caver made a few strategic changes that had ripples across the entire school. For one, she added 10 minutes to every school day so that teachers could get a full day off every quarter to focus on STEM, project-based learning, and literacy. She converted four part time elective teachers into two full time positions, so that those teachers could fully integrate with the teaching staff and support the instructional model Moreover, she organized the school day to include a reading intervention block supported by a new literacy program, tied to students’ skill level.
This response was possible because Hannah Gibbons-STEM School is in the Cleveland-Metropolitan School District (CMSD), which is undergoing a big change in how it funds, designs, and supports schools. Under The Cleveland Plan, CMSD aims to become a “portfolio district” in which the central office gives schools more control over their budgets, among other things, in exchange for high accountability. As part of this goal, CMSD adopted a funding system called Student-Based Budgeting (also referred to as Weighted Student Funding in other districts), in which schools receive dollars based on the number of enrolled students and their individual needs (such as English Language Learners, or students from high-poverty backgrounds), and school leaders have more control over their budgets.
But CMSD realized that a new funding formula and new flexibility were not enough to ensure effective resource use and student achievement. They linked Student-Based Budgeting (SBB) with Strategic School Design, a practice in which school leaders start with a strong vision for student success, and reorganize their resources—people, time, technology, and money—around that vision. Strategic school designs often involve changes to increase and improve collaborative planning time, data-driven instruction, personalized learning, and social-emotional supports, among other strategies. CMSD shaped their SBB system with an eye towards key Strategic School Design principles, provided guidance on best practices, and created support and accountability measures to ensure the principles became a reality.
More and more districts—and several states—are using SBB or similar funding models as a way to increase equity and promote principal autonomy. Over the past ten years, we at ERS have partnered with several of them as they shaped their models, including Baltimore City, Boston Public Schools, and most recently, CMSD . We learned through these partnerships that giving school leaders access to and flexibility over new resources is a good first step, but it does not automatically lead to improvement in student outcomes It’s what happens to those resources at the school-level that will make the difference for students. Student-Based Budgeting must go hand-in-hand with Strategic School Design. Through our work with CMSD, we identified seven “critical success factors” to creating a powerful SBB-Strategic School Design reform strategy:
- Leadership: Place academic or school-support leaders in charge of this initiative (not Finance)
- Flexibilities: Choose resource flexibilities that best support Strategic School Design and allow principals to make meaningful changes in their schools
- Process: Connect budgeting to the school planning process
- Collaboration: Help the central office become “service-providers”, not compliance watchdogs, to support schools
- Preparation: Educate school leaders on school design before implementing SBB
- Models: Give examples of strategic school designs found in your district
- Accountability: Create clear accountability for school design in the support process
Under SBB, it’s often said that the “dollars follow the student”. The question we must ask is—what happens to those funds at the school? When the dollars follow the student to the classroom door, what transformational changes await the student there?
What is Student-Based Budgeting? What is Strategic School Design?
“Student-Based Budgeting” describes any funding model that:
- Allocates dollars instead of staff
- Distributes those dollars based on student enrollment per-school, as well as specific student and school characteristics
- Gives schools increased flexibility over what to do with those funds
In short: with SBB, dollars follow the student based on student need. These needs can vary from poverty, Special Education or ELL status to high or low academic performance or many other factors. This differs from the traditional funding model which distributes most resources to schools in the form of staff and dollars designated for specific purposes, such as “categorical” funding.
Across the country, more than 10 of the largest urban districts have adopted SBB or similar models, including New York City, Houston, and Denver. A few states—including New Jersey and most notably California—have also adopted funding systems that distribute money to districts based on student need, including poverty status. The goal of these systems is to increase equity, flexibility, and transparency by granting schools extra funds to serve high-needs students, pushing more control down to the school level, and making the funding formula crystal clear to all. ERS has found that under these models, school leaders generally control between 40-80% of school-level spending, as opposed to as little as 1-5% under the traditional model.
But while SBB funding systems aim for equity, flexibility, and transparency, the real goal is to improve student achievement. Principals must be empowered and supported to use those resources in new ways to meet their schools’ unique needs. In Strategic School Design, school leaders think of themselves as “lead designers” with many resources under their control—principally, people, time, technology, and money. They identify their key student and teacher needs, and then craft a “vision for success” that would meet those needs. They then make a plan to reorganize their resources according to three big principles:
Some common strategies that schools use to implement these principles are:
- Excellent Teachers for All Students
- Personalized Learning and Support
- Cost Effectiveness Through Creative Solutions
- Teacher teaming: Teams are led by excellent teacher leaders and team members work together to plan and adjust instruction based on student data, as well as share responsibility for student success.
- Targeted and dynamic learning resources: Student groupings and schedules are initially set and frequently adapted to differentiate which students need to be with which teachers or technology, learning what content, in what group size, and for how long, based on their individual needs.
- Personal relationships and school culture: Since learning happens in the context of deep relationships between students and teachers and students to students, schools implement a variety of strategies from advisory periods, to smaller class sizes, to buddy systems and more to ensure every student is “known”.
- Community partnerships: Community partners can sometimes provide high-quality services (such as health screenings, physical education, and arts education) at a lower cost; partners and schools must ensure they have shared goals and ongoing communication.
ERS has identified these principles and strategies by studying high-performing schools across the country, from traditional district to charter schools. While high-performing schools strive to maximize all three principles, they cannot, nor should not, implement dozens of new initiatives at once. Strategic school leaders identify their schools’ specific needs, and implement targeted designs that match those needs. For example, a school with a young and relatively inexperienced faculty might focus on providing more job-embedded, individual professional development, tied to each teacher’s skill gaps. A school with a relatively expert teaching force might focus more on creating teacher leader roles and differentiating instruction.
This kind of strategic planning is much more narrowly constricted under traditional district funding systems, where school leaders have little say over staffing, scheduling, or meaningful school-level spending. That’s why Student-Based Budgeting is a key complement to Strategic School Design—and why the two initiatives must be seen as part of the same reform strategy.