New group is tackling thorny WSF problems
Can a committee with the whimsical name COW II do serious work? It not only can, but it must if Hawaii's public schools are to benefit from a new method for allocating resources called weighted student formula.
Generally speaking, WSF allocates resources to schools in dollars rather than staff positions. This means schools can make their own decisions about how resources should be spent. Schools receive a base amount of funding for each student and additional funding (weights) for students who require more resources to educate, such as non-English-speaking students. Students who transfer from one school to another take their base funding and weights with them. So schools losing students must get better or face loss of funds.
Act 51, the Reinventing Education Act of 2004, mandated the formation of a Committee on Weights (COW) to work out the formula details. This included creating a list of student characteristics to be weighted and determining which money should be included in the amount of funds to be allocated through WSF.
A committee of more than 40 members struggled with this charge, and in January 2005 made its recommendations to the Board of Education.
But concerns were growing and bubbled over when it became apparent that smaller schools would lose, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars. Since the Department of Education maintains that all schools are underfunded, how can a plan that will take money from almost half of all public schools in Hawaii pass the common-sense test?
In October 2005, the BOE voted to limit the dollar gain or loss schools will experience under WSF to just 10 percent in 2006-07. Identifying WSF as one of its top priorities, the BOE hired a third party to evaluate WSF, including looking at what is weighted and how other school districts such as San Francisco and Houston have formulated and use WSF.
So what went wrong?
WSF is a work in progress, and the new COW II committee (slimmed down to just 15 members) now must refine the initial formula.
In addition to reviewing the current formulation and weights, COW II and the DOE will look at the unintended consequences of WSF and its effect on schools losing funding.
Other issues to be addressed include which existing school programs should go into or be kept out of the WSF "pot," whether foundation funding that supports school operations would help and what to do about categorical funds that must be spent in prescribed ways, limiting principals' flexibility.
Foundation funding might cover the average cost of key positions deemed necessary for the running of a school. Which administrative operations at a school are essential? Does a school need a principal? A librarian? A student services coordinator? Since the DOE has changed previous definitions of minimum administrative staffing at schools, it now must clarify this in order for COW II to proceed.
The money in the WSF "pot" comes from programs that individual schools may choose to use or not use. Will good programs be lost if they're thrown into the pot? Remember, the whole point of Act 51 and WSF is that decisions about what works best for students should be made at the local school level rather than mandated by the state DOE office.
COW II is off to a good start, with hard-working and knowledgeable members. For more information including dates, times and locations of COW II meetings, a roster of committee members, agenda and minutes go to http://doe.k12.hi.us, then click on Committee on Weights under "Quick Links" (bottom right).
Ruth Tschumy is a consultant to the Hawaii Educational Policy Center, a nonpartisan research organization.