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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, December 5, 2003

'Weighted' budgets a tool, not basic reform

A preliminary analysis of a new "weighted" formula on budgeting for Hawai'i's public schools suggests it could offer many advantages but also poses large political and administrative difficulties.

The analysis, prepared by the Department of Education for use by the Legislature next year, indicates that some schools with significant numbers of difficult-to-educate students would gain under the formula, but others could lose.

The results tell us that "weighting" budgets according to student need is a simple idea in concept but a difficult procedure in application.

One of the more striking aspects of the study on weighting is that much of what we think about overall per-pupil spending in this state is essentially a myth.

It is generally reported that the state spends a little more than $8,000 a year per student in operating costs. That number compares relatively favorably with per-student spending in private schools. So why aren't we getting more bang for our buck?

The weighting study suggests that the average spending figure has little bearing on what happens in specific classrooms. Actual student spending might vary from as little as $2,823 for a typical third-grader with no special needs to as much as $10,338 for a student with exceptional needs.

In other words, in a typical classroom of, say, 20 students, not every one of those students is getting $8,000 worth of education in any given year.

This is not an argument for taking money away from special-needs students to pump up the amounts available for other, "typical" students. Far from it. The state has an obligation to offer the best education possible to every student.

And if some variation of the weighting system can shift resources to those schools that face the greatest challenge from special needs (English as a second language, poverty, gifted and talented, special education) it would move the state toward a truer version of spending equity.

Ultimately, however, jiggering with the way individual schools are budgeted is not the heart and soul of school reform. It is simply a useful tool. Real reform will come when lawmakers and the educational establishment commit to a system in which individual school administrators are free to run their schools as they see fit and then are held directly accountable for performance.