Fund the Child: A Better Way to Help Disadvantaged Students

Funding and decision-making authority should follow the student, not programs. This simple but revolutionary idea is gaining bipartisan support across the country. And it could pave the way for an overhaul of federal aid for disadvantaged students.

In January, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed that Gotham adopt three new policies: “backpack funding,” school-based management, and widespread school choice. This bundle of reforms — known as the “weighted student formula” — embodies a new approach to education finance.

With backpack funding, public schools receive per-pupil funding based on individual students’ characteristics. This consists of a basic per-student grant for every child and then extra money for students who are from low-income households, don’t speak English at home, or have special needs.

The second pillar of the plan is school-based management. School leaders are given the authority to control their budgets and direct their school’s mission. Principals and school leaders get to be entrepreneurs or CEOs of their schools, making decisions about resource allocation, personnel, and the school’s mission without looking to a centralized bureaucracy for direction.

The third pillar is widespread public school choice. Students can attend a school of choice, taking their funding with them. School leaders have an incentive to offer a quality learning environment and attract students to their school.

San Francisco has been a leader in this approach since 2000, thanks to the efforts of former school superintendent Arlene Ackerman. Today, the 60,000-student district has open enrollment and real school-based management. It also has some of the highest test scores of any city in California.

Ms. Ackerman, now a professor at Columbia University’s Teacher College, recently described the district’s experience in the New York Daily News: “In the period after the weighted formula was implemented, San Francisco experienced six consecutive years of academic gains. The system’s principals, teachers and parents now are among the biggest advocates for our student funding reforms — because they have seen them succeed.”

New York isn’t the only place considering San Francisco’s successful approach. South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford has also championed the “backpack funding model.” So has D.C. School Superintendent Clifford Janey. Elected officials and school leaders from both parties are warming to student-based funding and decision-making.

So is the education policy community. Republicans like former Education Secretaries Bill Bennett and Rod Paige and Democrats like former North Carolina Governor James B. Hunt Jr. and former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta all endorse the idea of funding the child.

With this strong bipartisan support, lawmakers on Capitol Hill should take note and consider how similar principles could be applied to federal education policy in the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind.

The central premise of the backpack funding model is that school finance should be simple and transparent. One way to embrace these principles would be through an overhaul of the federal Title I program.

The purpose of Title I — funded at approximately $13 billion for 2007 — is to provide additional resources to communities with many disadvantaged students. The current Title I formula is neither student-centered nor transparent. Instead, Title I funds are delivered through complex funding formulas created over decades of congressional policymaking. The current formula is expensive to operate and bureaucratic. It also has resulted in wide variances in per-student funding across states and school districts.

Title I is ripe for simplification. Congress should put in place a new, transparent funding formula based on the principles of backpack funding. Title I grants could be delivered through a simple formula based on the number of low-income students in a state.

And states could be allowed to use Title I funds in ways that make it follow the child. Ms. Ackerman, Mayor Bloomberg, Mr. Podesta, and Governor Sanford should be invited to testify and inform Congress about the promise of this simple and transparent system of school funding.

Funding the child is a unique education reform idea that appeals to both the right and the left. It promotes school choice and decentralization while addressing concerns about equity. It’s a school reform recipe that should attract wide bipartisan support — at city hall, in state legislatures, and even on Capitol Hill.