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When Opportunity Presents Itself

• Karla Phillips

While the way schools are financed varies from state to state, the idea of school finance reform is always daunting because each of the many critical elements of school financing is fraught with political landmines. Simple conversations on school finance can quickly spiral into fierce debates over per pupil funding, revenue sources and tax reform.

And in the midst of these persistent concerns, states must face a new challenge. The days of students sitting behind a desk in a single school for the exact amount of legally required minutes are slipping away. School choice and personalized learning options are sweeping the nation. How will states finance the rapidly-changing face of education to be increasingly flexible, portable and student-centered system?

Showing great leadership, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey recently announced the launch of the Classrooms First Initiative Council. The Council is comprised of state leaders “charged with simplifying and modernizing the current school finance code to ensure more funding for teachers and classroom instruction.” Hopefully, these leaders will take into consideration how schools and the traditional concept of a classroom have and will continue to change.

The Grand Canyon State is already a leader in empowering families to design their own educational journey through plentiful options and online learning. Rather than simply choosing from just one local school’s course options, Arizona families can create the exact education plan that plays to their child’s strengths and interests. For example, a student could attend a brick-and-mortar school for half of the day, a joint technological district for half of the day and still take an online course.

But to support these new, customized learning opportunities, states have to reevaluate the way schools are financed. There are some states willing to travel this road. In 2013, these states made fundamental steps to reframe their school finance conversations:

  • Idaho’s Task Force for Improving Education made recommendations to “enhance fiscal stability and remove current barriers to personalized and/or mastery learning models…”
  • Utah passed SB 393 directing the State Board of Education to develop recommendations for a funding formula to support competency based education.*
  • The final report from Georgia Governor Deal’s Digital Learning Task Force recommended designing “a funding mechanism that provides flexibility to foster blended and competency-based learning while balancing the operational needs of districts.”

The conversations and recommendations of each state differ, but there is one common theme. These states recognize the need for a school finance formula that is flexible and breaks the connection between seat time (a.k.a. average daily membership) and funding. Ending the relationship between time and money is not the ultimate solution, but this step is absolutely prerequisite for any discussion of adequate funding in the future as well as the imperative of portability and ultimately performance based funding.

A school finance system based on the amount of time students physically spend in a building has created a zero-sum game and has multiple implications.  As families’ strive to maximize their options, one school’s gain is another’s loss.  In a discussion of dual enrollment and other options at an Arizona State Board of Education meeting, Cochise Community College President J.D. Rottweiler commented, “As soon as you start counting minutes and require us to divvy them up – game over.”

Like all school finance reform propositions, there is no simple solution but identifying the right problem is the first step. Before states can jump into determining what the right amount of funding is or where it should come from, they must sever the connection between seat time and funding.

Arizona has been a leader in expanding educational options and now the state has an incredible opportunity to lead the national conversation in developing a school finance model for the 21st century. A school finance model that not only provides adequate resources but is flexible, portable and student-centered will be a powerful tool to ultimately promote new opportunities and growth for the state’s students.

*Competency-based education is a system of personalized instruction where students advance to higher levels of learning as soon as they demonstrate mastery of concepts and skills regardless of time, place or pace.

To learn more, explore these documents on competency-based education and outcome-based funding or view the infographic below from ExcelinEd’s 2014 Digital Learning Report Card.

How does competency-based education compare


About the author

Karla Phillips

Karla is Policy Director for Next Generation Learning at ExcelinEd. Previously, she served as Special Assistant to the Deputy Superintendent of Policy and Programs at the Arizona Department of Education. Karla also served as the Education Policy Advisor for Governor Brewer and as the Vice-Chair of Arizona’s Developmental Disabilities Planning Council. Her experience includes serving as Director of State Government Relations for Arizona State University (ASU) and as a senior policy advisor for Arizona’s House of Representatives. Karla received her B.A. from Indiana University and an M.P.A from Arizona State University.