State policymakers have long used weighted-student funding (WSF) formulas to address state-level fiscal equity issues (J. G. Augenblick, Myers, & Anderson, 1997; W. Duncombe, Ruggiero, & Yinger, 1996; Hanushek, 2006; A. R. Odden & Picus, 2014). Although state policymakers have used this mechanism to address inter-district funding disparities within states, local education agencies increasingly rely upon WSF formulas to address intra-district funding disparities (Malen et al., 2015).
District-level implementations of weighted-student funding formulas rely on a broader set of goals beyond fiscal equity (Malen et al., 2015; Curtis, Sinclair, & Malen, 2014, US Dept. of Education, 2019), including transparency, efficiency, and autonomy/flexibility. This autonomy aim is tightly coupled with the joint implementation of a weighted-student funding initiative and some form of a site-based management (also referred to as site-based autonomy) initiative. For example, 24 school districts in the United States currently implement WSF formulas and all of these districts utilizes some level of site-based autonomy, albeit to varying degrees of autonomy (US Dept. of Education, 2019).
This paper will layout distinct conceptual definitions and distinctions between WSF and SBA and will subsequently level a critique of the oft tight coupling of these two initiatives. This piece will then posit potential policy remedies for districts looking to use research-based efforts around weighted-student funding absent its joint implementation with SBA.
This work is a conceptual policy analysis in nature and, consequently, employs qualitative examination of existing research and practice to establish the underlying concepts of weighted-student funding (WSF) and site-based autonomy (SBA) and to subsequently level critique and discuss policy options.
The Underlying Concepts
Weighted-student funding (WSF) formulas are funding allocation systems that rely on a series of weights, which are tied to corresponding student or school characteristics/subgroups, to allocate funds to schools within a district, or districts within a state (Berne and Steifel 1984; 1999; Dayhoff, 2018; J. G. Chambers, Levin, & Shambaugh, 2010; Curtis, Sinclair, & Malen, 2014; Malen, Dayhoff, Egan, & Croninger, 2015, US Dept. of Education, 2019). WSF formula designs vary widely in the types of weights and the magnitudes of those weights contained therein. The capacity of a WSF formula to advance fiscal equity pivots on the formulaâ€™s: 1) use of valid weights for subgroups; 2) employment of weights with the correct magnitude and power; and 3) the flow of dollars through the actual formula (Malen, at al., 2015, pp. 21).
Site-based autonomy (SBA), in contrast, refers to an initiative in which principals and other school-based personnel and community stakeholders make decisions around FTEs and discretionary resources using the revenue or staffing allocations directed to the school (Ogawa, 1994, pp.537; Malen & Ogawa, 1988, pp. 253). Policy advocates for SBA argue that this independence allows those who know a school community best to control (and to be accountable for) the positions and programs that a school implements to best serve the children within that school (Furtick, K., & Snell, L. 2013; Snell, 2009).
WSF and SBA in Practice
Examination of WSF policies establishes a long pattern of WSF districts also using SBA (Furtick, K., & Snell, L. 2013; Snell, 2009; US Dept. of Education, 2019). The degree to which WSF districts provide autonomy to principals differs substantially but all districts allow at least some flexibility. Indeed, policy advocates promote WSF initiatives as ones whose very definition includes SBA (Education Resource Strategies, 2010; Furtick, K., & Snell, L. 2013; Roza, M. 2019). Interestingly, the opposite is not true. While Edmonton, Alberta was the first school district to use a WSF formula, districts using site-based autonomy via site-based management/governance initiatives began in the 1970s in Dade county and other districts throughout the country (Curtis, et al., 2014; Malen & Ogawa, 1988; Ogawa, 1994). This duality suggests room in school-district policy for the uncoupling of WSF and SBA for districts looking to implement WSF absent autonomy and flexibility aims.
Critique and Discussion: Uncoupling WSF and SBA:
Policy entrepreneurs espousing WSF as an initiative dependent on site-based autonomy/management risk broad disservice to districts who might otherwise have the capacity and political will to implement funding formula revisions in efforts to advance fiscal equity absent autonomy efforts. The policy linkage between WSF and SBA can create perceivably immovable roadblocks to policy makers who wish to advance goals associated with WSF initiatives but who see the combined implementation of both as insurmountable. Indeed, there are important reasons to reconsider and disentangle the tight coupling of these two initiatives. This paper ends with this discussion, a positing of policy alternatives, and conclusion.
Disentangling the Conceptual Blur Between Weighted-Student Funding and Site-Based Autonomy