STAR-BULLETIN / 2000
Under the Department of Education's weighted students formula, Kapolei High School will gain more than $1 million in funding. Above, the first class -- 365 ninth-graders -- along with teachers and administrators entered the new Kapolei High School campus after a ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2000.
The ABCs of WSF
Know the basics about the new and controversial 'weighted student formula' for funding schools
On Oct. 20, the Board of Education voted to implement the weighted student formula provision of Act 51 (the Reinventing Education Act of 2004), but limit the loss or gain of funds to any school to 10 percent in 2006-'07.
Question: What is WSF and how does it work?
Answer: Weighted student formula, sometimes called student-based budgeting, is a method for allocating funds to schools based on student characteristics. Since not all students are equal in ability and needs, WSF is an additive giving schools additional funds, over and above a base amount, for students who require more resources to educate. These "weighted" groups of students include the economically disadvantaged, non-English-speaking students and transient students. Special education students already receive extra resources and are not included in the weighted student formula. A Committee on Weights will determine each year if there are other sub-populations of students to be weighted.
In addition to the weights, positive or negative funding adjustments go to schools that are especially big or small, geographically isolated ones, those that serve specific grade levels of students, and multitrack and combination schools.
Q: So will WSF increase Hawaii's education "pot" of approximately $1.78 billion?
A: WSF does not increase the total funds in the education "pot." Rather, it allocates some of these funds to schools in a different denomination -- dollars rather than staff positions.
Q: Is this change significant?
A: In the past, schools received resources mainly in the form of staff positions based on school enrollment. Under WSF, schools will receive some resources in dollars, a step toward allowing each school to decide how it will spend its money to directly benefit its own students. Therefore, WSF becomes a tool in decentralization efforts, moving decision-making from the state Department of Education level down to individual schools.
Q: Where will the additional money come from to fund the weights, since high percentages of Hawaii's schools have large populations of weighted students?
A: Here's the problem. To give to some schools, you have to take from others. While all schools should gain money for their weighted students, only some will show a net gain. This gain will come from net losses at other schools (including a number of schools that are under No Child Left Behind sanctions for failing to make adequate yearly progress).
The DOE says "all schools 'losing' money are already underfunded as they are presently organized, but all schools 'gaining' money are currently more underfunded than schools losing money."
Has WSF, a methodology for giving more resources to schools based on student characteristics, become a vehicle for taking from those with few resources? No, but it has become a prescription for putting some schools on a diet.
Q: What are some of the projected numbers?
A: Recent projections show Waipahu High School and Kapolei gaining more than $1 million under WSF and Kaiser High School losing $813,000. Jarrett Middle School and Niu Valley will each lose more than $700,000 while Mililani Middle will gain about $700,000. Haleiwa Elementary will lose more than $350,000 and Solomon will gain $330,000.
Q: What determines whether a school loses or gains funds under WSF?
A: Remember the DOE statement that "all schools 'losing' money are already underfunded as they are currently organized." The DOE points to the fact that some schools are currently organized with more nonteaching staff than other schools of equal size, and these staffing inequities have built up over time.
For instance, School A and B both have the same number of teachers (based on collective bargaining agreements), but School A has four more nonteaching staffers than School B. So, simply put, School A will lose funds under WSF.
Curiously, however, projections show School A (with more staff) losing $75,000, while School B (with less staff) will lose $380,000. Though there are other variables involved in this example, it suggests that staffing inequity by itself can't explain the large losses some schools will experience.
Q: How will "losing" schools absorb the loss of funds?
A: Potentially, they will handle the loss by personnel reductions/reassignments in nonclassroom staff. WSF, then, becomes a vehicle for rebalancing school staffing, an issue the DOE wrote about in its 2003 WSF Feasibility Study: "At different periods of time attempts to provide equity in this area (school staffing) have been made, but the leveling up has never been fully completed. ... The wide disparity in classified office staffing among schools is conspicuous."
Q: Is it possible for losing schools to see WSF as an opportunity?
A: Change is difficult, and most of us find comfort in doing something the way we've always done it. Randy Moore (DOE project manager for Act 51 implementation) sees WSF as a "once-in-a-generation opportunity for schools to redesign/reinvent themselves to better serve their students."
Schools Superintendent Pat Hamamoto believes everyone in the DOE must "change their set of skills, practices and expectations." It's about transformation, and she wants everyone to understand that the option of "business as usual" for Hawaii's schools no longer exists.
Q: What challenges remain?
A: As a formula, WSF should be transparent. It is in the best interests of our community if doubts about its formulation are fully addressed. Perhaps mixing two issues -- giving schools additional funds for students who have greater learning needs (WSF) and taking funds away from schools that might be overstaffed -- is causing confusion. This is because WSF is about math decisions, while staffing equity is about management decisions, past and present.
If funding inequities exist among schools, shouldn't we find out how this happened so it won't happen again? As recently as last April, the DOE wrote, "Hawaii is the only state not dependent on local property taxes as a major source of revenue, permitting the most equitable school finance system in the nation." How did it get so inequitable?
How will schools gaining funds, as well as those losing funds, reorganize themselves? How will they get the biggest bang for their buck? Are principals and their School Community Councils on a learning curve about how to do things differently? How can they be assisted in this by the DOE, the BOE, the Legislature and the public?
These are the challenges the DOE and the BOE must address during the next year. The bottom line, of course, is what positive difference WSF will make for Hawaii's children.
Ruth Tschumy is a consultant to the Hawaii Educational Policy Center, a nonpartisan research organization. Her column appears on the first Sunday of each month.