Schools facing difficult decisions

The Baltimore Sun

As the Baltimore school board prepares to overhaul the way it funds public education, it is grappling with tough policy decisions involving the distribution of tens of millions of dollars.

Among the questions the board is considering:

Should a school get more money for a child with special needs, leaving less for everyone else? And if special needs are accounted for, should schools only get more for children who are struggling, or should extra dollars be set aside for gifted children as well?

Then there is the matter of what to do about schools that have received disproportionately high levels of funding in the past. Should they be penalized under the new funding formula? Or should the board hold them at least partially harmless, continuing the inequities among schools?

The board is backing schools chief Andres Alonso's proposal to cut 310 central office jobs and give principals more discretionary spending power. Although the school system must close a $50 million budget shortfall this year, Alonso's decentralization plan also calls for shifting $70 million from the central office to schools.

Alonso says the system's current funding formula is problematic, favoring some schools at the expense of others. Before the board votes April 8 on the system's budget for the 2008-2009 academic year, it must resolve fairness issues presented by distributing money to principals whose students have varying needs.

"There is no such thing as doing this without pain in some way," Alonso said at a board work session Tuesday. "This is about hard decisions."

The central office now has control of all but $90 of the approximately $13,000 that the system spends on each of its 81,000 students. Under Alonso's budget proposal, principals would receive up to $5,600 per child in discretionary money, plus more money restricted for specific purposes, such as special education and transportation. If the board decides to spend more money on certain students or to hold harmless schools that have gotten more money in the past, the $5,600 figure must drop to make up the difference.

Differing views

At the work session, board members seemed to agree that not all students should be funded equally. Beyond that, their views were all over the map.

If schools were to get extra money strictly based on which students are struggling academically, high schools would be funded at the expense of elementary schools because the city's failure rates increase as children get older.

Alonso points out that under current policy, the city's high schools do not receive Title 1 dollars, federal money earmarked for high-poverty schools. While high school students are just as poor as their younger peers, they're often embarrassed to turn in applications for subsidized meals that state their family income. Several elementary schools will receive Title 1 dollars on top of their discretionary money.

Around the nation, Alonso said, most reform efforts in urban education center on elementary schools.

"The high schools are in trouble," he said.

But the idea of taking away from elementary schools to give to high schools didn't sit well with board member Kalman R. "Buzzy" Hettleman, who questioned whether a dollar spent early goes further than a dollar spent late. Besides, he said, "Half the kids in the early grades aren't succeeding, either, so let's not take this out of proportion. They're doing better, but kids have a long way to go, even at the elementary school."

If schools were to receive extra money for their gifted students, defined for analytical purposes as those who score above grade level on standardized tests, more dollars would be channeled to elementary schools.

According to a system analysis that excluded special-education students (whose education is funded separately), 848 of this year's second-graders scored above grade level on English and math tests, compared with 83 eighth-graders.

While board member George M. VanHook Sr. said the system ought to be giving the most to the neediest children, board member Anirban Basu suggested that funding for gifted students could have a big impact on a small population.

If the board decides to adopt a funding formula based on student need, it will have to establish benchmarks to determine who gets extra money and how much. Should additional funding go to students who have failed (or gotten an advanced score on) both English and math tests, or only one of the two? The decision will have significant funding implications: Among nondisabled high school freshmen, for example, 1,969 students have failed both their English and math tests, while 3,426 have failed one or the other.

In the coming weeks, Alonso and his staff will crunch numbers based on a variety of scenarios to help the board make its decisions.

While the CEO has not issued a specific recommendation for a funding formula, he feels strongly that whatever the board adopts should be based on academic - not financial - need. He also argues that funding should be determined based on students' academic performance at the time they enroll in a school. If decisions are based on the number of students who continue to struggle over time, as they have been in the past in Baltimore, schools have a financial incentive for children to perform poorly.

Under that model, Alonso said, "the schools in the system that are doing the worst with kids are always going to be the ones that get the most dollars. ... If a school gets to a point where they begin to achieve with the kids that everybody else is failing, they start losing the resources."

Political question

One of the most politically charged questions facing the board is what to do with schools that in the past have gotten more money than others with similar populations.

To hold them completely harmless, the system would have to cut the discretionary money that principals will receive by $400 per pupil, to $5,200. Alonso does not recommend doing that.

"The more we mitigate the impact, the more we leave things exactly as they are," he said. "This is really about redistribution because right now, the schools are not funded equitably, or logically."

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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