Nonprofit urges Hamilton Co. schools to base funding on individual students, not enrollment ratios

Joda Thongnopnua, center, David Morton, left, and Jackie Homann work at the Metro Ideas project, and independent nonprofit start up that is rethinking the traditional policy research model.

Equity doesn't mean equality. Not all schools should get the same percentage of funding.

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For more information on the Metro Ideas Project, visit its website at

Behind the Numbers:

The Metro Ideas Project’s breakdown of school-level spending captured about $300 million — 75 percent — of the Hamilton County Department of Education’s budget of approximately $400 million for fiscal year 2015. The team at Metro Ideas said the money not accounted for includes things like what the district spent on transportation, utilities and maintenance. Metro Ideas’ calculations also do not account for all the private donations made to schools, only those reported to the Hamilton County Department of Education.

When it comes to budgeting practices, the Metro Ideas Project thinks Hamilton County Schools should consider a new approach.

After months of crunching data and breaking down per-pupil spending at the school level, the independent, nonprofit research startup recommended the school board adopt a student-based budgeting process.

"Equity doesn't mean equality," said Jacqueline Homann, policy research director for Metro Ideas. "Not all schools should get the same percentage of funding."

Homann said Hamilton County Schools' current budgeting practices focus on staff, buildings and programs, a reflection of the state's enrollment-centered funding formula.

But she and her Metro Ideas colleagues say one-size-fits-all budgets don't account for the diversity of students across the county and what it takes to help different students succeed.

Metro Ideas compared funding levels to academic achievement at each county school, finding that per-pupil spending and achievement levels are not uniformly correlated. National data backs up the finding, suggesting significant nonfinancial factors affect student outcomes.

Looking at costs per school, Metro Ideas found schools spending similar amounts of money often have different outcomes.

Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences Lower School spends about $9,381 per student, according to Metro Ideas calculations. Test scores last year showed 54 percent of students were proficient or advanced in English and 75 percent in math.

Hixson Elementary spent $9,018 per student, and its pupils tested much lower: 27 percent proficient or advanced in English and 61 percent in math.

Lookout Mountain Elementary spent just $8,764 apiece but its students tested much higher: 70 percent proficient or advanced in English and 87 percent in math.

The findings prompted Metro Ideas to recommend the school system base school funding on individual students and not basic enrollment ratios, as it is now.

Student-based budgeting provides a base amount for each child, boosted for factors such as poverty levels, academic achievement, whether they are learning English, and certain disabilities, on a scale set by the school board. The funding follows students from school to school and can be adjusted each year.

Individual schools get to determine how to use the extra money, allowing them to set priorities, such as literacy in early grades or closing achievement gaps.

"It's reality, some students cost more to educate," Homann said.

The federal government gives extra money where at least 40 percent of the students live in poverty. About 50 Hamilton County schools receive these Title I grants to help close achievement gaps for economically disadvantaged students.

But Metro Ideas found the federal money isn't boosting achievement enough, as students at most Title I schools in Hamilton County continue to trail schools with fewer poor children enrolled.

Changing the local school spending formula could help schools address the disparity, Metro Ideas argues.

Homann also worries about schools whose students aren't poor enough to qualify for Title I funds. She wants the local budget to provide additional concentrated support for school system priorities in those schools as well.

Joda Thongnopnua, executive director of Metro Ideas, said this approach to budgeting recognizes the reality on the ground at each school and gives school leaders flexibility to help their students succeed.

"It focuses back on students and brings the funding building blocks away from programs and back to kids," Thongnopnua said.

Metro Ideas leaders know any such move would take years, and that there would be funding winners and losers at individual schools. But unlike the current system, student-based budgeting supports socioeconomic integration, as schools receive more local money to educate poor children, they say.

School districts including Indianapolis; Oakland, Calif.; Chicago and Metro Nashville have adopted student-based budgeting, though data on achievement outcomes for these districts is still preliminary.

Jonathan Welch, chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Education, said it's important to look at the data and ask if there is a better way to do things. But he doesn't' think there is an easy answer to school budgeting.

"I'm not sure we really understand what it means or how to use the data to get to the end goal of student achievement," Welch said.

He said the proposed budget for the coming year provides specific benchmark goals and priorities, which he called a long-desired step in the right direction.

Welch said he hopes people who look at Metro Ideas' data keep an open mind and don't use it to support predetermined solutions.

Kirk Kelly, interim superintendent of Hamilton County Schools, did not return a request for comment Friday.

Thongnopnua said Metro Ideas' objective is to provide information to the community that is not readily available and hope it sparks conversation.

"School systems have a responsibility to be transparent about how [they spend] public money," he said.

Metro Ideas hopes the schools and other government organizations become more transparent with budget numbers, allowing the public the opportunity to derive conclusions and help solve problems.

The group plans to look next at Hamilton County's budget.

"I'd like to see a culture shift, so that when people ask for data, it isn't perceived as an attack," Thongnopnua said. "A shift to trust the community with data that is complex."

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