DOE suggests restoring cuts
Recommendations would alter a system of weighted funding
A Department of Education committee is expected to suggest major changes today to the new weighted funding system for Hawaii schools, recommendations likely to reopen a heated debate over the controversial system.
The recommendations would restore much, and in some cases all, of the budget cuts some schools would have faced under the weighted student formula, which shifts funds to schools with more poor, non-English-speaking students or others with learning challenges. The changes would go into effect in the 2007-08 school year.
But if the Board of Education approves the suggestions, it will disappoint schools that had been expecting sizable funding gains.
"Will we satisfy all of the schools? No, but we did our best to try to find a balance," said Bruce Coppa, chairman of the 14-member Committee on Weights.
The weighted formula is designed to get education dollars to where they are most needed. It does so by assigning additional funding "weights" -- reassessed by the committee annually -- to certain types of students.
The committee's key recommendation is that around one-quarter of the $919 million envisioned in the weighted funding "pot" be distributed to schools as guaranteed "foundation" funding to ensure basic operational needs and staff positions are secured.
The foundation amounts range from $666,000 for elementary schools to $1.37 million for high schools.
This would significantly soften the impact of the formula and is likely to be looked on favorably by board members.
Members were upset that the original version of the formula, devised last year by a previous committee and introduced this school year, threatened to push some small and rural schools to the brink of insolvency. The board voted for a slow four-year phase-in beginning this year to buy time for adjustments.
"The (current version) would have had a tremendous impact," said Karen Knudsen, board vice chairwoman, who favors a gradual transition to weight funding.
"Change is always difficult, but when you're dealing with children, you have to make sure any unintended consequences are positive, not negative," she said.
But the recommendations will not sit well with the many schools that stood to gain financially.
Under the current formula, Mililani High School will see its budget grow by $860,000, or 8.6 percent, on full implementation, based on 2005-06 enrollment. But the new recommendations would result in just a 1.5 percent boost.
"The first committee on weights tried their best to make sure schools got the funding they needed for each student," said Principal John Brummel, who says the school needs more money for additional counselors and other staff to help lagging students.
"I realize there is some give and take, but this committee is not giving a fair share to each student," he said.
The committee's recommendations include a call for more than $20 million to be added to the pot to meet student needs.
This echoes the recent conclusions of an independent review of the current formula, which said the pain caused by the funding shifts indicates Hawaii's school system is insufficiently funded overall for a weighted formula to have the desired effect.
"More money is needed. If you've got so many poor or ESL students in the system, and only so much money to go around, are we really accomplishing anything by doing this?" Coppa asked.
Weighted student funding has been adopted in a handful of mainland cities, but Hawaii's system -- mandated by the Legislature two years ago -- breaks new ground as the first statewide implementation.
Experts agree, however, that applying it across an island chain with vast differences between rural and urban areas puts the state in uncharted waters, and the system has been criticized as not well thought out by the first committee.
Current members have addressed this with a recommendation that the DOE establish a full-time Office of Weighted Student Formula to coordinate the "immense" task of developing and implementing the system and assessing its impact.
"This committee has met only 10 times. To be able to look at every detail of every school is a full-time job," Coppa said.
The Board of Education, whose budget committee will take up the issue beginning next week, is not bound by the recommendations.
"Now is the time for school communities to start talking to their board members and making their views known," said Robert Campbell, director of program support and development.
Other committee recommendations include:
» A three-tiered system of weights for non-native English-speaking students to address the varying needs of those whose English is fluent, limited or nonexistent.
» Creating a new weighted category for at-risk students.
» Eliminating the funding weight for student transiency.
» Setting up a $2 million reserve fund to address unforeseen funding emergencies.
» Phasing in changes over two to three years, depending on a school's funding change.
» Increasing the weight for geographically isolated schools.