Districts are uniquely well-positioned to improve resource equity. Given their deep understanding of the needs of their student populations and their schools, districts can diagnose and address resource needs with nuance and insight.
Historically, districts have tried to mete out resources equally, driven primarily by staffing ratios. They may, for example, allocate one teacher per twenty-five students to each school, along with $100 for classroom resources and $500 for food services per student. This approach makes intuitive sense and appeals to our ideas of fairness. We know, however, that students have different needs depending on a host of factors, and that schools serving students with greater needs may require more resources to provide these students with a quality education.
In other words, equality is not equity: providing the same resources to all schools, without accounting for the unique needs of their students, will not translate to a quality education for all students, and therefore does not meet a basic standard for equity.
Districts can move toward a more equitable budgeting model by taking student needs into account. This can be done through a weighted student funding model, or what we call equity-based budgeting. Under equity-based budgeting, districts take stock of students’ needs—for example, schools with high proportions of English language learners will need more specialized language instructors, and schools require additional funding to support students with special learning, emotional, developmental, or physical needs—especially when they need to comply with individualized education plans for special education students or other legal requirements.
Most districts already account for these students in their budgets, and also make provisions for low-income students (often defined as qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch). Districts may find, however, that the marginal amount allocated for these students does not fully meet their needs, that the money districts spend on students with these needs are not proportionally allocated to schools, or that their schools serve students whose needs remain unaccounted for because they do not fall squarely within demographic categories for state or federal grants.
Beyond straightforward categories like English language learners, low-income students, and special needs, districts can factor in issues like concentrated poverty (schools whose student populations are, for example, more than 60% low income), school size, historical disadvantage (allocations for schools in underserved communities), or locale (rural schools may, for instance, benefit from specialized transportation supplements).
Districts are also connected to their communities and can use these connections to diversify the voices involved in developing a community-grounded definition of equity by soliciting input from teachers, policymakers, parents, students, and other stakeholders. Accounting for the specific needs of their schools and students, planning for how to make educational experiences and opportunities more equitable given these needs, and incorporating these plans into operational and budgeting decisions comprise the process of creating a shared equity vision for a district.
In addition to the equity merits, which are worthwhile for their own sake, introducing equity-based budgets can help schools and districts in practical ways. Student-based funds can be spent more flexibly at the school level. This allows schools to respond to student needs as they emerge: for example, if schools see an influx of English language learners in a given year, they can choose to invest in an additional English language instructor, or—especially if an additional instructor costs more than the funds the school has available—more instructional materials.
This contrasts with a staff-based budgeting model, which operates according to specified ratios: for example, a district may allocate an additional teacher for every twenty-five students who enroll. Depending on the sophistication of rounding rules, a school with fifteen or twenty students more than a multiple of twenty-five may not receive an additional teacher or the equivalent funds. Under this scenario, a staff-based budgeting model would effectively lead to larger class sizes and would not provide additional resources to compensate. With student-based budgeting, this school would receive money on a per-pupil basis for staff and materials to support every student. Further, students with particular needs—for example, English language learners, low-income, or those who qualify for special education services—could qualify for larger funding weights under an equity-based budgeting model. Schools would receive supplemental money to support these students, and may be able to make larger investments, such as hiring additional instructors or staff, to better meet their needs.
Federal ESSER funds, aimed at helping schools address the social, emotional, and educational harm inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic, offer an ideal opportunity for districts to begin the transition toward equity-based budget models. How districts direct these funds, according to their own needs and following federal guidance, can help establish an initial framework as districts define their community’s equity vision. This baseline equity framework can serve as a dynamic model for incorporating student needs into budget planning, allowing these needs to shift as students reacclimate to in-person schooling in the coming years.
ESSER funds can also help districts establish and maintain equitable funding channels in the budget models. Many of these funds are earmarked to support struggling and underserved students, which could ease districts’ transition into channeling their own funds for these purposes as ESSER funds dry up. Districts can examine which uses of ESSER funds served schools and students in their communities particularly well and direct revenues toward these resources in upcoming fiscal years.
As we will discuss in our second and third posts, the process of creating a shared equity vision and translating this vision into an equity-based budgeting model is demanding. It requires careful and inclusive planning, preparation, and communication. But districts don’t need to abandon their previous budgeting processes wholesale: equity-based budgeting can complement more traditional budget models, and districts can choose to allocate dollars using a combination of student weighting and staff- and site-based budgets that provide equivalent baseline levels of staff and resources to all schools.
Have more questions? We’ve answered some here.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nell worked as a middle school Science teacher for 6 years before enrolling as a doctoral student in Education Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studies education finance and resource equity. At Allovue, she creates research-informed content highlighting current issues in education finance.