Cooper: Why not pilot student-based budgeting?

Cooper: Why not pilot student-based budgeting?

June 10th, 2016 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

If the Hamilton County Board of Education wanted to consider school-based budgeting, it could implement it, like Metro Nashville did, with its innovation zone schools.

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

It's not exactly a throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks strategy, but public schools across the country are always searching for the next best thing to help improve education.

One of the latest considerations is student-based budgeting, which gives individual schools and principals more autonomy in funding decisions than the widely used central office-directed approach that relies on staff, building and programs.

Schools, instead, would be funded by a pre-determined amount for each student plus an enhanced amount depending on factors such as grade, poverty, English language learners and disabilities.

In general, it's preferable when decisions are made closest to the student; in other words, principals and teachers know better what is needed for their students than administrators in a central office, officials in a state education department or a bureaucrat in a Washington cabinet office.

The theory is that the principals — who now control only 1 to 2 percent of a school's budget — and teachers then would implement specific programs or learning modules or hire particular staff members to improve individual student performance, and those students would have a better opportunity to thrive based on those programs and hires instead of fitting into a one-size-fits-all formula.

In that scenario, principals controlling the funds and teachers carrying out the programs necessarily would be more responsible for student performance. Teachers in Tennessee in the past have balked at having their performance reviews based heavily on student scores, so that could pose a problem. Further, principals — many of whom say in surveys they are already overworked — would find themselves both the chief academic officer and chief financial officer of their school.

In turn, a central office used to calling the shots for schools might not need as many administrators or employees. The Hamilton County Schools central office, for instance, currently has 43 departments one can call about an issue.

Alan Coverstone, the former director of the innovation school zone for Metro Nashville schools, and Michelle McVicker, principal of Buena Vista Enhanced Option School in Nashville, said Wednesday it's too early to make broad conclusions about the use of student-based budgeting in Davidson County schools but that some schools have seen increased proficiency in standardized testing and in academic growth.

The two shared their thoughts with the public in a presentation sponsored by The Metro Ideas Project, a local independent, nonprofit research organization.

The Nashville system began student-based budgeting in its innovation school district, encompassing some of the lowest performing schools in the state, in 2013. Last year, the system expanded it throughout the district.

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

That is the attitude we often have said that Hamilton County Schools must adopt if it wants to improve as a district. Piloting innovative programs and carefully measuring outcomes, using a small subset of students or schools, is a good way to determine if a plan should be expanded.

Like Metro Nashville, Hamilton County has a set of innovation zone schools, where improvement has been stubborn. If the district is interested in testing student-based budgeting, it could start there. Because of federal and state requirements already in place, funding for the schools would only increase. If it proves to be a success, the district could consider using it system-wide.

Of course, student-based budgeting is not without its pitfalls. The biggest of those could be how the formula is computed to determine how much more a school would get for a student who needs English as a second language support or who has a specific disability or whose household is considered to be in poverty. The lobbying during the creation of such a formula could rival Washington, D.C.

Conceivably, complaints following a system-wide adoption of such a plan also could crop up from parents who suddenly are asked to fund programs they didn't have to fund previously in schools where there is little enhancement to the per-student formula. Such an us-vs.-them battle would be the last thing the Hamilton County system needs.

On the other hand, student-based budgeting also has the possibility of convincing the community about the positive responsiveness of individual schools, measuring the leadership effectiveness of principals and allowing a yearly flexibility in asset allocation.

As with anything, there are pros and cons, which must be carefully considered, but with a foundering ship, does it matter how people are saved from drowning?

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