With the state’s budget situation casting a cloud of uncertainty in education (and beyond), the time seems right to take a look at education funding through the lens of something that is more than certain—that student needs have changed drastically since our school funding formula was developed in the 1940s.
We often talk about an equitable, student-centered funding system as a standalone concept. But it’s not. It’s fundamental to ensuring the success of all types of students with a spectrum needs and interests.
A student whose native language is not English.
A student who changes school districts halfway through the year.
A student hoping to graduate high school with college credit.
A student who wants to supplement her traditional classes with online/distance learning and community experiences.
These are just four examples, highlighted below, of students that could benefit from the state transitioning to a more flexible, student-centered funding system. Most states use a foundation formula, where a base amount of money—rather than units—is allocated consistently for each student, to which funding can be added based on designated student needs, such as low-income, English learners, and students with disabilities. In other words, a student’s needs are taken into account as money is distributed.
Funding is Fundamental to… English learners
Since 1997, Delaware has experienced a 433-percent increase in English learner students. Yet Delaware is one of four states that does not provide additional resources for English learners, meaning districts and charters must cobble together other funding to meet legal requirements for serving English learners. In other words, a school with 100 EL students receives the same amount of state funding as a school with 10 EL students—$0. Dedicated funds for EL students could help districts and charters provide a wide array of services, including hiring additional certified instructors.
Funding is Fundamental to…transient students
As a research assistant for the University of Delaware’s Institute for Public Administration providing staff support for the Wilmington Education Advocacy Committee, I had the privilege of hearing testimonies from Wilmington parents, teachers, administrators, and community leaders. One challenge that stood out from their stories was the challenge of responding to students moving across districts. These effects may be most acutely felt in Wilmington, where moving just a few blocks can switch your school district – as it happened to me last summer – or for students with special needs who are entitled to certain services.
Funding is Fundamental to…college and career-bound students
There is a lot of momentum in Delaware for ensuring students graduate high school with credits/credentials and real-world experiences that set them up to success in whatever postsecondary path they choose. Today more than ever, there are more options available for students such as earning early college credit through Advanced Placement and dual enrollment courses, enrolling in a career pathway, or gaining work-based learning and leadership experience. But we have some work to do. We learned from the College Success report that we’re still not preparing enough young people for college coursework, and it’s possible that we’re not providing enough access to challenging courses to kids in high school, especially to students of color or students from low-income families.
We know that Delaware is one of about 15 states that does not allocate funding in its state formula for low-income students, which could be used for these purposes and others. While some districts may cover the costs of this offering this rigorous coursework, others may not be able to. As Mike Griffith, senior school finance analyst for Education Commission of the States, points out: “There are some states where high school students can take dual and concurrent enrollment and come out of high school with a free associate degree. And this is not a small group of elite students—but it’s open to every student. With an improved formula, your school will have greater flexibility to offer more after-school and summer school courses, and we can do so much more for our at-risk kids.
Funding is Fundamental to…personalized learning
I’ve also heard from members of the Rodel Teacher Council that the unit count funding system is one of the barriers limiting the state’s ability to scale up personalized learning models like innovative school design, reimagined teacher roles, and flexible course offerings for students. In their Student Centered Learning Structures policy brief, RTC members illustrate the connection between personalized learning and the state funding system through a fictional student named Maya.
According to RTC members in this brief, “In order for Maya and her classmates to have opportunities for online/distance learning, community experiences, and other activities related to their specific needs and interests, Delaware’s funding system will need to shift to be more student-centered.”
Funding is Fundamental to….all of Student Success 2025
Rodel is committed to supporting implementation of the Vision Coalition of Delaware’s Student Success 2025 recommendations, which are divided into six core areas including “Fair and Efficient Funding.” But it’s clear from the examples above that funding is not just a standalone core area of Student Success 2025. It affects our ability to implement recommendations across all core areas. Reevaluating how the state allocates its finite dollars could open up possibilities such as:
- In “Educator Support and Development,” the full possibilities of implementing exciting educator career pathways are not outright hindered, but limited by barriers such as the unit count and teacher of record policies.
- “System Governance, Alignment, and Performance,” recommends we provide LEAs with flexibility to “develop shared service arrangements” and other efficiency measures. At the moment, the state dictates what purposes units can be spent on, such as energy or behavioral health specialists, rather than provide support and incentives for efficient local resource decision-making.
For these reasons, Delaware’s funding system will continue to be a hot topic until we can ensure that state resources are being allocated in a way that most efficiently, equitably, and effectively allows all students to succeed.