This interview was conducted just before the coronavirus pandemic upended schooling across the country. We decided not to publish this while educators, students, and families navigated the first phase of this crisis, but now, as district and school leaders develop plans for the 2020-21 school year, we believe this conversation’s focus on budgets and equity can inform their decision-making.
This post is also part of a series of interviews conducted for our Eight Cities project. Read all related posts here.
School funding. Are we spending the right amount? Are we spending it fairly? Are we spending it wisely? These questions get the most attention when state legislatures debate policies that involve millions or even billions of dollars, or when those policies are challenged in court. Those conversations are critical — state funding policies are foundational to how schools are resourced — but they aren’t the whole story.
Less often discussed is how funding is allocated from districts to schools, which can have a major impact on equity. Most districts build school budgets based on inputs required to run each school, largely reflecting compensation costs for the teachers, administrators, and support staff employed in a school, plus budget for materials and supplies. This method may sound logical on its face, but it can limit strategic spending decisions and result in inequitable allocation of resources.
An alternative approach that some districts are beginning to explore is student-based budgeting, which allocates funds based on the students served in each school, weighted for factors associated with their individual education needs (such as income status, disability status, or status as a dual- or English-language learner).
Student-based budgeting can be a driver of equity and support district innovations like those highlighted in our Eight Cities project. When equipped with a budget that reflects the needs of their students, school leaders can then leverage increased school-level autonomy over key decisions, including staffing and budgeting, and customize school programs and operations to the needs of their students.
Allovue, a Baltimore-based education financial technology (EdFinTech) company, works with school districts to build and support technology-based solutions to plan, manage, and evaluate spending. We talked with CEO Jess Gartner to get more insight into student-based budgeting, particularly with an equity lens, and the opportunities and challenges it presents to districts.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
At the heart of your company’s mission statement is a focus on equitable budgeting. What does that mean in practice?
Equity is not a “one size fits all” thing. There’s not a single “answer” for an equitable funding formula. You have to take into account the needs and context of the local community and align that to the needs of students and the resources they need to be successful in that district. A lot of the work we do starts with a “steady-state analysis” and helping districts understand where they are today. We are then able to dig in at a deeper level and ask: “What are some things jumping out at you as potentially problematic or areas that you want to improve?” We often see either an inverse correlation between need and dollars that are allocated or dollars that are spent, or we see a completely equal allocation of resources. In an ideal scenario, the resources are correlated positively with the needs of students.
Our recommended approach is to use the first six to twelve months with a targeted group of internal stakeholders to see where they are today. We can’t inform your strategy one way or another until we all have some time to look at where you are today.