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Put Students at the Center of Education Funding

• Matthew Joseph

Too often, debates about state education funding focus solely on how much money should be provided to school districts. Far too little attention is paid to an equally or more important question: How can your state maximize the impact of existing funding?

One critical strategy is to fund students, instead of allocating large blocks of funding to districts, schools, staffing positions, and special services or programs.

Student-centered funding means that each district in your state receives a base funding amount for each student, with additional funds, also called weights, for students who have special needs or disadvantages. In a student-centered funding system, these education dollars fully follow students as they move from district to district.

There are several key advantages to student-centered funding:

  • First, it is more transparent. It is clear and easy to understand how much funding each district gets and why.
  • Second, it empowers districts. District leaders have flexibility to use funds to meet the unique needs of their students.
  • Third, it empowers parents. Parents can choose the district that is best for their children, with the money fully following their students.
  • Finally, it is fairer. All students in your state get the same base resources, with additional funding for students with special needs or disadvantages.

To help states make the transition to student-centered funding, ExcelinEd has published a new guide, Student Centered State Funding: A How To Guide for States, that lays out a step-by-step process to meaningfully increase the proportion of funding that is student-centered. It also discusses some of the trickier design challenges and identifies ways to overcome them.

The guide describes five steps:

  1. Establish a base funding amount that every district receives for each student served. To increase the percentage of funding in your state that is student-centered, a key strategy is to collapse the many existing separate funding programs into the base.
  2. Require local funding for a district on a per student basis, such that the total local contribution will go up and down based on student enrollment.
  3. Structure all funding for students with special needs or disadvantages as a weight, or multiplier of the base, for each such student that a district serves. As these students change districts, the additional funding should fully follow them.
  4. Adjust funding for districts each year based on the number and characteristics of students they are serving.
  5. Remove restrictions on how districts spend money, relying instead on accountability and financial transparency to ensure that the needs of all students are met.

By taking the steps in this guide, states can create a student-centered funding system that is vastly simpler, fairer and more effective and gives more flexibility to districts and more choices for parents. ExcelinEd stands at the ready to provide technical expertise and assistance to state policymakers seeking to advance student-centered funding in the coming months and years.

About the author

Matthew Joseph

Matthew is Policy Director for Education Funding Reform for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Matthew previously worked as a Senior Program Officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, spearheading a national initiative to improve strategic use of resources in public education. He also served as Executive Director of Advocates for Children and Youth, where he led successful efforts to improve education and other services in Maryland. He also worked as a Senior Associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Matthew received his Bachelor’s from Harvard University and a JD from the University of Maryland School of Law.