Nashville educators share approach to school funding with Hamilton County

Joda Thongnopnua, center, moderates a presentation by  Dr. Alan Coverstone, left, and Michelle McVicker June 8, 2016 in the Bellhops Headquarters in Warehouse Row.
Joda Thongnopnua, center, moderates a presentation by Dr. Alan Coverstone, left, and Michelle McVicker June 8, 2016 in the Bellhops Headquarters in Warehouse Row.

If you expect us to do something different you have to give us the opportunity to craft something

Empowering principals is the cornerstone of Metro Nashville Public Schools' new approach to budgeting.

The school system has adapted a student-based budgeting approach that provides principals with the autonomy to decide how money is spent inside their buildings, according to Alan Coverstone, previous director of Nashville's innovation zone and now an assistant professor at Belmont University.

He said this approach allows the people closest to the school to make a majority of the important funding decisions, knowing they will be held accountable to specific outcomes.

"I tell you what to do and you're successful or not. Or you decided what to do and you are successful or not," Coverstone said. "One of them is just a lot easier to use, as far as accountability is concerned."

Coverstone spoke Wednesday night at an event hosted by The Metro Ideas Project, an independent, nonprofit research startup that spent several months breaking down Hamilton County Department of Education's school-level spending per pupil.

Metro Ideas brought in both Coverstone and Michelle McVicker, principal of Buena Vista Enhanced Option public school in Nashville, to speak about their experiences with student-based budgeting. Coverstone helped implement the approach in Nashville's innovation zone, and McVicker is a principal who has seen gains using the budgeting approach for three years.

Student-based budgeting differs from the traditional "one-size-fits-all" funding formula most school districts use, including the Hamilton County Department of Education.

Under the traditional approach, schools are given funding based primarily on staff, building and programs, which is a reflection of the state's enrollment-centered funding formula.

Joda Thongnopnua, executive director of Metro Ideas, said this leaves principals with limited flexibility in how funds are spent.

"One to 2 percent of [a school's] budget is controlled by individual principals here in Hamilton County, which is fairly common across the country," he said.

Thongnopnua added that this traditional approach to funding does not account for the diversity of students across the county or give principals much autonomy to help students succeed.

Student-based budgeting does not base school funding on enrollment numbers, but instead attaches different amounts of funding to individual students. A base amount of funding is determined for every student in the district and this is then boosted depending on factors such as grade and poverty levels, academic achievement, whether they are learning English, and certain disabilities, on a scale set by the school board.

Each school then receives funding based on the specific students that attend, and the modifications used to determine funding can be changed each year based on the district's goals.

McVicker told a group of about 50 people how controlling her own budget has allowed her to change the way she staffs classrooms to ensure students are getting more instruction specific to their needs.

Nashville's school system began giving principals increased autonomy over spending in the innovation district - a group of some of the lowest-performing schools in the state - in the fall of 2013, which includes McVicker's school. Last year, the school system implemented student-based budgeting districtwide.

McVicker said there was "potential for great opposition" when making this shift because the traditional staffing model is usually shaken up. She said having the strong support of the school's central office and teacher buy-in helped with the transition.

Coverstone said the district's gradual shift into this budgeting approach also helped because some principals had more experience with how this worked before the district implemented student-based budgeting in all schools.

"There were principal voices leading the way instead of voices like mine," he said.

Coverstone said this approach is not a panacea, but he has seen it work for schools in Nashville, though he said it is too early to make any concrete conclusions on its effects on student achievement.

But for McVicker, she said her school has increased proficiency in every tested content area for the last three years, according to standardized testing data. She added that school-level data is also showing that students are seeing tremendous academic growth.

She said by experimenting and being able to abandon what's not working, she feels like she can better use funding to target her students' needs.

"If you expect us to do something different, you have to give us the opportunity to craft something," McVicker said.

Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at 423-757-6592 or Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.

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