The Baltimore school board on Tuesday approved broad changes to the way city schools are funded, allowing money to be allotted based largely on student poverty levels rather than standardized test scores.
The new formula will send more money to many schools in high-poverty neighborhoods, enabling principals to pay for psychologists, tutoring services or other tools that could better serve children in need.
District administrators said the revised plan will direct additional funds into most of the city’s elementary and elementary/middle schools. Originally, the district said that some schools in more affluent areas of the city and most high schools would see their budgets shrink under the changes. But after many education advocates spoke out against the model, the board pledged they would find a way for no schools to take a funding hit next year due solely to the formula revisions.
Alison Perkins-Cohen, chief of staff for schools CEO Sonja Santelises, said the district believes it can draw from state revenue to ensure no schools lose money due to the formula revisions, even as high-poverty schools are set to gain funding next year.
Tuesday’s vote amends the district’s decade-old “fair student funding” model principals use to create their school budgets. The model is based on a set number of dollars per student, along with additional funding determined by certain student characteristics. Schools got extra money for serving advanced students, but also for serving low-performing students and those at risk of dropping out.
This unique funding mechanism, utilized by roughly 30 school districts in the country, is based on a belief that school principals are better equipped to make financial decisions — on how many teachers to hire, for example — than those in the district’s North Avenue headquarters.
District leaders said they still abide by that philosophy of autonomy but believe the formula needed an update to align it with the system’s values.
Parent groups and other education advocates urged the board Tuesday to delay the vote and give parents and principals more time to consider how the complicated changes will affect individual school budgets. The district published a school-by-school budget analysis a few days before Tuesday’s vote, but a series of community meetings on the formula had already passed.
Baltimore Teachers Union President Marietta English said the district was rushing the vote without taking many “concerning factors” into account.
“Let’s be completely sure that what we’re trying to implement benefits every child in every school, city-wide,” she said.
She questioned how potential changes in state policy may soon affect city schools funding. A landmark commission charged with coming up with a plan to revamp and increase state spending on Maryland public schools postponed its recommendations until after the 2018 General Assembly session.
“Why not wait to implement changes until after a resolution from the Kirwan Commission and its recommendations has been made public and we’ve had the opportunity to discuss them?” English asked the board Tuesday. “Why not wait until we get more input from parents on how to best allocate those new resources? Why not take more time to look at all of the revenues that contribute to what could and should be a well-rounded Fair Student Funding Model?”
Cristina Duncan Evans, of the Baltimore Movement of Rank-and-File Educators, questioned the premise of fair student funding. She asked whether the district is expecting too much of its principals, who have to be both an “instructional leader and a fiscal manager” by managing multimillion-dollar budgets.
The board voted to revisit the formula after one year and will continue to seek community feedback.
“We have heard folks,” said Santelises. “We want to make sure we are looking at the practical application while also continuing to wrestle with the fact that young people who come from low-income communities need more.”
In the old funding model, schools received a base amount of $5,400 per student. The schools got an additional $520 for every high school student deemed at risk of dropping out, and $800 for each high-performing or low-performing student.
The new model is based on the money available in this year’s $1.3 billion operating budget. High schools would get a base weight of $6,075 per student, plus $700 for each student identified as living in poverty. Schools would receive $400 for the small population of students who are identified as gifted and advanced.
Elementary and elementary/middle schools would also get $400 per gifted and advanced student, but the rest of the breakdown differs. They would get a $5,500 base weight and $400 per student living in poverty. Twenty-nine schools would also qualify for a “poverty concentration” weight — an extra $200 per student if 80 percent of the student body comes from low-income families.
The new model also sets out to solve a perennial problem in the fair student funding model: Small schools don’t have enough students to generate the funding they need to operate and the district has had to supplement their budgets. It includes a roughly $3 million allocation to ensure all schools can afford basic services, including enough teachers to maintain a designated student-teacher ratio.
District officials emphasized that the new formula doesn’t solve an underlying problem. No school in Baltimore has enough money, they said.
“We’ve been underfunded chronically,” said board vice chair Peter Kannam.
Correction: A previous version of this story said a commission postponed its recommendations for Maryland public schools until after the 2018 election. The decision was delayed until after the 2018 General Assembly session. The Sun regrets the error.