Education Formula for Results, Not Just Funding

Hoover Institution education policy expert Eric Hanushek had an interesting article on EducationNext, last week addressing the concept of “weighted student funding.”  He focuses primarily on the aspect of that concept that emphasizes moving decision-making to individual schools, rather than districts, so the essay isn’t a direct hit on the debate in Rhode Island.  Still, the general ideas are worth considering.

Hanushek contends that liberals like the idea of school-level weighted funding (which directs resources based on the varying needs of students) because it allows cities to support schools in poorer neighborhoods without lavishing equal percentages on those in wealthier neighborhoods.  Conservatives like it, he says, because it opens the door for equitable funding of charter schools in a slightly more school-choice model.

In neither case does he believe that adjusting funding will be sufficient:

[To support these policies,] we must believe that public pressure set in motion by this formulaic funding of schools will sweep away the rigidities of contracts, the desire to insulate the system from competitive pressures, and the interests of current personnel, and will lead to better solutions. Neither of these underlying presumptions appears plausible. What appears to be happening is that we are attempting to produce fresh approaches to regulating the process of education, only at a different level of governance.

Liberals and conservatives both want improved achievement of all students, but achieving that seems much more likely through rewarding success, rather than relying on the hope that a naive model of political reaction would work better. In simplest terms, weighted student funding does little or nothing to alter incentives for performance in the schools unless the vague hopes behind these ideas are realized.

That brings the discussion into the hotly contested areas of standardized testing, merit pay, and such, in to which Hanushek doesn’t delve.  Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, comes to mind, and the energy she’s been expending to make results have consequences.  Standardized tests are a perennial debate, and most recently, Gist has been fending off legislative attempts to block her efforts to link such tests to student graduation.

The problem with this approach is that it uses consequences for students as a means of creating incentive for districts.  Moreover, it places the fight in the public sphere, where the forces of the status quo in the education establishment can distort the debate and position themselves beside the students whom they’re under-serving against the reforms.

The incentive for reform ought to come directly from Rhode Island families and the decisions that they make.  No test developer or state-level bureaucrat has the intimate knowledge of students and their individual needs or the direct experience with districts, schools, and teachers necessary to judge success.  Labor unions, lobbyists, and friendly legislators can fight reform as a matter of public policy, but they’ll have relatively little influence over parents who feel that their own specific children are not being well served by their local public schools.

Approaches that centralize decision making — by requiring state or national standards and funding — head in the wrong direction.  Indeed, they are just about explicit attempts to erase the one market force that applies in public education:  the choice of residence based on school quality.

Far from pulling judgment of school success away from those closest to them, reforms ought to give local judgment more weight.  That is, one shouldn’t have to buy a house to exercise school choice.