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Baltimore considers funding schools based on student poverty rates

The Baltimore city school system is considering sweeping changes to its school funding formula, potentially directing more money into schools where many students come from high poverty families.

The Baltimore city school system is considering sweeping changes to its funding formula that would direct more money to schools with many students from poor families.

The proposed formula, which the city school board is scheduled to vote on Tuesday, would allocate resources based largely on student poverty rather than on standardized test scores.

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“We are acknowledging that, given what some kids are exposed to, they have additional needs and that actually costs more,” said Cheryl Casciani, who chairs the school board.

For the past decade, the district has operated a unique model it calls “fair student funding.” Principals build their school budgets based on a set number of dollars per student, along with additional funding determined by certain student characteristics. Schools get extra money for serving advanced students, but also for serving low-performing students and those at risk of dropping out.

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The model was lauded as transformational when it was implemented in 2008. It is based on the philosophy 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 administrators say that fundamental belief remains true, but it’s time for an update.

The proposed changes would funnel more money into almost all of the district’s elementary and elementary/middle schools, where the student population is largely tied to the ZIP code in which the school is located. Many schools in high-poverty neighborhoods would see their budgets grow, giving principals the ability to hire school psychologists, for example, or offer extra tutoring.

“Funding based on poverty will allow us to do the social-emotional work that will transform achievement down the road,” said Raymond Braxton, the principal at East Baltimore’s Johnston Square Elementary School, which has a student poverty rate above 85 percent.

But some schools in more affluent areas of the city stand to take a financial hit if the proposed changes are approved. The district has recommended a transition plan to cap the amount a school could lose next year based on the formula changes. That would mitigate the more dramatic effects on a school’s funding, at least in the short term. A school’s losses would be capped at 2 percent per pupil, while the gains would be limited to 5 percent.

“We’re expecting a reduction in funds, but exactly how much is unclear,” said Roland Park Elementary/Middle School principal Nicholas D'Ambrosio, noting that he understands the need to realign resources.

The proposed formula would leave most of the city’s high schools, including some of the best-performing, with less money.

Baltimore schools have had to return millions in state funding for building repairs after projects to fix failing heating systems and roofs grew too expensive or took too long.

There are fewer high school-aged students in the city, and the district’s high school choice system enables students to attend schools outside the neighborhoods where they live. This makes it more likely for students from poor neighborhoods to be spread out among high schools. High schools with a large number of gifted and advanced students, as well as those with high-poverty populations, would fare better.

Some parents and educators criticized the district for not explaining how the proposed formula would affect individual school budgets during community meetings held to discuss the changes. The district eventually published a school-by-school budget analysis, but only a few days before Tuesday’s scheduled vote.

The Baltimore Movement of Rank and File Educators, a group that advocates for better schools, is demanding the board postpone the vote and withdraw the plan.

“The district’s new proposed formula is flawed, and the district has not given satisfactory responses to community and educator concerns,” the group wrote in a petition. “This flawed funding formula could cause schools to lose resources and programs, and lead to layoffs ... and the further destabilization of City Schools.”

Baltimore City Public Schools had to close several schools due to freezing conditions. Gov. Larry Hogan blamed mismanagement with capital funding; school officials blamed the state funding process. Both have a point.

Alison Perkins-Cohen, chief of staff for schools CEO Sonja Santelises, acknowledged the proposal does not address the chronic underfunding of Baltimore city schools overall. The state has estimated the city school system faces a shortfall of more than $290 million a year.

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It’s hard to redistribute money when “none of our schools are living lavishly,” she said. “We know we need additional resources, but we need to figure out how to use the resources we have as effectively as possible.”

The change would put Baltimore in the forefront of using poverty as a factor in funding schools. Only about 30 districts across the country use this model, including large districts such as New York City and Boston. Roughly a third use poverty as a weight, said Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University.

Baltimore’s current model, in which low-performing students get extra funding, can create a “perverse incentive” for schools not to improve, Perkins Cohen said. At a recent meeting, school board members wrestled with the idea that decoupling academic performance and funding would fail to hold schools accountable.

“We have a decade’s worth of school reform knowledge that is saying that a lot of the financial incentives we’ve put in place have not necessarily yielded the kinds of results we want,” Santelises said.

Robert Helfenbein, associate dean of the Loyola University Maryland School of Education, applauded the district’s proposal for acknowledging the impact poverty has on students.

“Taking the issues related to concentrations of poverty seriously is exactly what the leadership of the city should be doing right now,” he said.

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