Trying to find fairness in new funding formula
SMALL is beautiful -- except in schools. Is this the message of the weighted student formula, a new method for allocating resources to schools?
Small schools stand to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars when WSF is fully implemented. Since the Department of Education maintains that all schools are underfunded, many question a plan that will take money from almost half of all public schools in Hawaii.
Why will small schools lose so much money? The explanation given is that Act 51 (the Reinventing Education Act of 2004) is all about school equity, and small schools are currently "more-funded" based on per pupil expenditure than large schools.
Small school advocates say per-pupil funding is not a fair measure because small schools have greater fixed costs. School A has an enrollment of 218; school B has 401. Both have principals. If the principal's salary is divided by the total number of enrolled students, students at school A receive more money than students at school B.
Randy Moore, DOE project manager for Act 51 implementation, says all schools have about the same student/ teacher ratio, but small schools have significantly higher numbers of other staff such as office personnel, custodians, counselors, librarians and cafeteria staff.
Which "other" staff positions are necessary for the basic functioning of any school? These positions would constitute a fixed cost.
Previously the DOE defined a school's essential administrative personnel as a principal (and, depending on size, a vice principal), a school administrative service coordinator, a registrar (at middle and high schools) and a student services coordinator. Now, in an effort to equalize per pupil expenditure, a suggestion is being floated that as long as all functions at a school are attended to, the only required position is a part-time SSC.
Since Act 51 is all about raising student performance and empowering principals, the suggestion that principals are not required seems counter-productive. What does research show about the role of librarians and counselors in academic achievement? What is the DOE's position on this? What is the public's perception?
Moore believes students in large schools are shortchanged relative to non-teaching services. Whereas a counselor at school A is shared by 218 students, a counselor at school B is shared by 401. Moore asks, is this fair to the 401 students? On the other hand, is it fair that 218 students should be denied a counselor?
To Moore, it's not about doing away with librarians or counselors: "Smaller schools need to continue providing non-instructional services to students, but they need to do it differently." It's about functions rather than positions, and how these functions can be performed cost-effectively.
With loss of funds looming, a number of small schools have decided to eliminate a librarian or counselor position, or both. Will these functions still be provided at those schools? Should the DOE require these schools to detail how this will happen?
Wherein lies equity?
Do we want 218 students at one school to do without a librarian so 401 at another school have better access? What's fair to one seems unfair to the other. Perhaps equity means all schools should be given foundation funds to cover the essential positions needed for basic educational operations. The downside to this is that it will reduce the amount of money over which principals will have discretionary control under WSF.
Act 51 is good legislation that eventually will move educational decision making down to the school level where it should be. But we need public discussion and debate about its implementation.
Ruth Tschumy is a consultant to the Hawaii Educational Policy Center, a nonpartisan research organization.