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Summer 2008 Vol. 15. No. 4 Focus on Following the Money

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On the record with Arlene Ackerman, incoming CEO of the Philadelphia School District

She explains "weighted student funding" and how she has implemented it in three other cities.

By the Notebook on May 22, 2008 12:00 AM

Interview by Dale Mezzacappa on April 29, 2008

What is the point of weighted student funding?
The weighted student formula is a fiscal methodology designed to determine how to allocate funds in an equitable way to schools based on specific student characteristics that are developed, and identified, and agreed upon by school districts. Those student characteristics vary from school district to school district.

And how are those decisions made? What characteristics?
What I’ve done [in Seattle, Washington, DC and San Francisco] and would do here is to put together a committee of parents, teachers, principals, and representatives of the various stakeholder groups. I think we had one or two high school students. But mainly it’s adults, and mainly it’s staff people in the academic area, as well as the finance people, and principals, and teachers. The people who have to implement it are really important to help us shape the formula in a way that’s going to benefit the schools. So, it’s really important that we have principal representatives from all kinds of schools: large schools, small schools, schools that do well, schools that don’t do well, schools that have parents that are really involved, schools that don’t have parents involved.


They decide what characteristics to weight, like poverty and English-language learners. And then what happens?
People [say] if you just put in a weighted student formula, all of a sudden you’ll see student achievement get better in the district. But all the weighted student formula does is assure that there is an equitable way of distributing the money. What happens next is the most important part of this process. The schools decide, based on data, their academic plan. Then they align that academic plan with the budget, determining the staffing, determining the resources they will need to support their plan. And then they implement the plan and we evaluate the plan. So, this is an ongoing process. It starts with data and--I’m sorry, I left something really important out—not only looking at the data but the district providing academic performance outcomes for every school. So, they know, going into this process, that we’ve set targets for them. And they’re based on data from that school, not comparing that school to another school. So, we’ll look at data, for instance, for three years for—give me a school—Ben Franklin. And we’ll say, based on your performance over the last three years, Ben Franklin, here are your targets for this year.


These are targets for progress?
Performance targets.


Apart from No Child Left Behind?
We set those targets based on trend data. No Child Left Behind doesn’t do that. We say, take these performance outcomes and develop an academic plan so that you can meet those targets, and then develop a budget that will support your plan. Here’s your money, and how you spend that money, how you determine the staffing, and how you determine the programs and the resources, how you use those resources is really your business, but you have to meet these targets. And if you meet your targets, you continue to get the freedom to continue this process. If you don’t, then there will be some kind of district intervention put in place. So, the weighted student formula, for me, is the first part of a really important process that ends with academic outcomes and how the school is going to be able to meet those targets.


What is inequitable about the current system?
There are a couple of things. We have a staffing formula that determines what schools get, and it’s just generalized. So, we say if you have, I don’t know, 500 students, you’ll get an assistant principal. But if you have 499, you won’t. So, we have these very rigid staffing standards that may not be applicable for every school. I’m making this up now because I don’t really know yet the staffing formula here; every school gets a counselor. We’re assuming that all schools are alike when they’re not; they’re very different. That’s the first part of why this is inequitable. All schools don’t have the same population, all schools don’t have the same needs. And I believe that schools, and the people who work there, know best what their students need and that it should not be determined from the central office what every school gets, and what every school gets is the same. The second part is we already know that there are signs of inequity. Some schools have an extra assistant principal. They have an extra counselor. They have an extra program here or extra money there. And it’s not transparent. We don’t know how they got the extras. What my experience tells me is that they either have a principal, or parent community, that would allow them to navigate their way through a bureaucratic system and advocate for their school community. And I wouldn’t expect anything less. But if you’re not a principal who knows how to do that, or you’re not a school community where you have parents who can articulate the needs and push for extras, then you don’t get that. So, we have these inequities that are already in the system. And one of the first things we do when we put this committee together is to go through school by school to show that…we already are spending more at certain schools with no real rationale for why we’re doing it. When I was a principal I was one of those aggressive people who could go down and get in the faces of folks. And they wouldn’t want to see me coming, and they would give me what I wanted for my school. Is that fair? I don’t think so, but that’s my job as a principal, to fight for the needs of my community. But I think that’s really unfair.


Some people say that another unfair practice is using average rather than actual teacher salaries in calculating each school budget. Using average salaries means that schools with mostly lower-paid inexperienced teachers don’t get compensated for that.
Well, in all three school systems [we did this in] the committee and the district decided to use average salaries and not actual salaries. There are arguments on both sides. Again, that was determined during those discussions at the committee level, and I’m open to what they decide here. There are advantages to both, and there are ways to compensate if you decide to use average instead of actual. We kept a pool of money aside that would address some of the issues of our underperforming schools and would address the issue of ways to recruit more experienced teachers there. But I think it’s certainly going to be a discussion here. It always is.


Could you explain exactly how you envision the process playing out here? What kind of a timeline there will be? Who will appoint the committee?
Well, again, every community is different. In Seattle, where we first did it, it was so new in this country that we basically had staff people, principals, people inside the school system, and parents. In Washington D.C., we started moving to include more community-based people also. And in San Francisco, we had a combination of everybody represented at the table. One of the things that we did in San Francisco that we probably would do here is ask for each SRC member to nominate somebody or recommend somebody to serve on the committee. I guess I’ll have to talk with people here to see how they want to handle it. You don’t have to have everybody represented from the advocacy groups, but you ought to have an advocate group on the committee, one or two. Because the more people you have on the committee who go through this process, the more transparent the process is and the more you can get the word out about what’s happening. The other thing we did is we posted the minutes of the meetings [online]. For people who are on this committee, it’s a lot of work, meetings twice a week, usually two or three hours a time. And it’s almost like taking a statistics class, the first couple of months. But once people get through that first phase, then they all said it was one of the best experiences that they’ve ever had.


How big a committee?
In each city, I would say probably 50 people.

How long does the process take?
I’d say it’s a year for developing the weights and everything, to do it well. Ideally, having now done it three times in three different districts, I like the process of a year. Now I’ve done it quicker than that. In Seattle it was three months, and in D.C. it was six. I like the fact that we took our time in San Francisco, that it was a year-long process. We did this pilot that gave back a lot of information to the committee, and I would recommend that we use that same pacing guide.


So, you’re saying that it took a full year, and then the year after that was a pilot?
No, the pilot went on while the committee was working. What they were looking for mainly in the pilot was the kinds of support the schools would need to do this well.


So, in other words, they got additional money based on, I guess, some preliminary formula.
Yeah. We didn’t give them the weights at that point. We said if you agree to participate in this pilot, we will give you—and I’m making this up, because I don’t remember—but we’ll give you $250 more per student. But we’ll have access to [your] process. You’ll give us feedback to what kinds of support you need. And those results will be used in the deliberations of the larger committee. We learned everything from technological programs that would be needed to support the principals doing the business side, to professional development, to how to manage the team process. We learned that you needed to have in place some type of arbitration process in case decisions couldn’t be made at the school’s site level and they needed some type of facilitation.


So, are you planning to appoint this committee or get the committee started as soon as you take over?
Probably not until next fall when school starts. [We’ll start with] some community information meetings to talk about what it was and what it’s not because I hear rumblings now. People have decided that they are either for it or against it. I’m going to ask people to reserve judgment and to give us an opportunity to begin to look at this for the community of Philadelphia


So, the actual budget changes wouldn’t occur for at least another year
Probably 2009-2010. And again, we’d have to determine if the whole district would go in at the same time, or would we phase it in. I’m not trying to make any decisions beforehand for Philadelphia. This all has to be done from a grassroots process, and by that I mean a committee and talking with the communities. It’s a very intense process that requires a lot of facilitation and openness and transparency about what’s going on. So, I don’t want to rush and decide anything for Philadelphia. I think this is a process that has to be grown from the uniqueness and the culture of the school system. But what I believe is that looking at the weighted student formula as a way to address equity is really important.


The SRC has a consulting contract with Education Resource Services to work on this. What are they doing?
What they will do is do what my staff did in the other three school systems – look at how we’re already spending the money by school and at the district level. And they bring that information to the committee, so they can begin to look closely at how the money is already being spent, and where the dollars are already going.


How do you avoid making the weights political? I read that in one district gifted kids are weighted much higher than poor kids.
First of all, I let the committee struggle with that. I mean, here are the issues. Here’s the data. This is how certain groups of students are doing. We’re looking at how to address very difficult issues. I know in San Francisco, gifted was left out because we were hemorrhaging with some students sort of as you would look at a patient in an emergency room, you wanted to address some of those issues so that you could then begin to work on some of the other less critical markers. So you go to where the need is and you put the weights there. They’d spend days arguing about this, researching it. And I don’t want to simplify what’s going to be a very difficult process for people sitting around the table…. I mean, everything is political. And so, I’m not going to say there won’t be politics. But I could tell you that in the three districts where I’ve been involved in implementing a weighted student formula, I’ve always felt that the weights were fair and equitable in the context of that school system, that people really did a good job of looking at the weights with the backdrop of the needs of the district students and the culture of the school system and the community. The consensus doesn’t mean that everybody gets their way. It just means that we sort of agree at this point on what we think is fair….This is not about an individual’s preferences. This is about finding a process and implementing a process that is going to address the equity needs of the schools. And I would say to anybody, is it fair that if I am bilingual and poor that I should get less money simply by virtue of where I choose to go to school? And I would say to you that that’s unfair and inequitable. A bilingual child who is poor, it costs the same to educate that child wherever he or she goes to school. And that money should follow that characteristic, or those characteristics.


Some people argue that weighted student funding distracts from the larger point of whether the district gets enough money to begin with, the adequacy issue. I guess you know that the legislature commissioned a costing-out study that assigned weights to various categories of students, and on the basis of that decided that Philadelphia needs a nearly billion dollars more to educate all children to high standards.
Because there’s not enough money doesn’t mean that we continue to allocate the dollars we do have in an unequal or inequitable way. While we’re all fighting that other fight, we need to make sure that we’re doing what we’re asking the state to do [and distributing dollars equitably].


You described a very transparent process, but in some of the press accounts I’ve read there was some argument that it wasn’t transparent enough. What are you going to do to insure that people feel comfortable with it?
I can tell you that having done it three times you get better at it. In Seattle, for instance, there was probably no transparency. In D.C., I think we did a better job. By the time we got to San Francisco, we were putting the minutes online. Maybe at this point, we’ve learned how to do it better. Committee meetings were open to the public. So, I think you learn from your mistakes, or you learn from what works and what didn’t work. There will always be some people who think that whatever you do is not enough. But all you can do is put in processes that allow in people who want to see it and to make sure that people are represented around the table. It’s not going to be easy. And I know it’s a political process. But I hope that the bottom line is what’s in the best interest of all the children, not just the children that we represent or the children that we care about. And that’s my job, to make sure we keep going back to that as a core focus.


Let me ask one final question that’s a little bit off the subject. Are you looking at all the contracts that the District has with the various private providers and for-profit providers? Discipline schools? Are you taking a hard look at those?
Yeah, we are, but from multiple subcommittees. We have a subcommittee on teaching and learning, one on safety, one on building capacity, resource allocation.


From what you’ve seen so far, are you satisfied that these contracts have enough accountability attached to them?
I’m not, no. And from a personal point of view as the new CEO/ Superintendent, one of the things I’ve asked is to take a look at all of the contracts, not only from just organizations, but personnel. There are a lot of consultants in this district, more than I’ve ever seen in my life. And I’ve been in many school systems. And my question would be, looking at the implementation of a weighted-student formula, you start with what monies do you have now, and where are those dollars going? So, as the subcommittees are working, anything that touches their area, if it’s a contract, I’m saying, “Look at it.” And tell us, is it making a difference? But I can tell you my gut reaction as superintendent of two other school systems, that there are a lot of consultant contracts. And I don’t see the controls and the accountability processes in place to determine whether or not they’re making a difference for kids. And if they’re not, then I question whether we should even be doing them.

About the Author

Contact Notebook contributing editor Dale Mezzacappa.
Transcribed by Lois Zinn.

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