Changing how districts divvy up their budgets

Print More

Could you run a business without controlling your budget? Thousands of public school principals face this dilemma every day. Imagine you are a high school principal. You are lauded as the CEO of your building, yet whenever you want to spend more than $400 on materials or equipment, you need two approvals from central office. Or perhaps you want to hire a reading teacher but you can’t because the “system” only allows reading teacher positions in elementary schools.

These scenarios are hardly far-fetched. Principals in Chicago and other districts struggle to be instructional leaders without having control over their budgets. One solution is school-based budgeting, (sometimes called site-based or performance-based budgeting), which allows principals, teachers, and in Chicago, local school councils (LSCs) to control their resources so they can tailor school services to meet student needs.

School-based budgeting is a process that moves authority and resources to the local schools. Weighted allocations is a method of distributing those resources.

Traditional, position-based budgeting systems—such as the one in place at the Chicago Public Schools (CPS)—allocate the bulk of a school’s resources based on district staffing formulas (e.g., one teacher position for every 28 students.) The Edmonton Public Schools in Alberta, Canada pioneered a budgeting system in 1979 that divvied up money to schools based on enrollment and the needs of each student.

Because school-based budgeting alone does not ensure an equitable distribution of resources, a growing number of U.S. districts. Seattle, Houston, Oakland, and San Francisco have decentralized budget authority to the local schools and adopted weighted allocations.

A budgeting system based on weighted allocations would provide CPS with a fair, equitable and effective way to distribute resources among Chicago schools.

Greater equity. It eliminates the equity gap. Houston Public Schools officials say using weighted allocations means “no school receives a greater share than others with similar numbers and types of students.” By comparison, in a district with position-based funding, an elementary school with 400 students could receive the same number of librarians, clerks and counselors as a school with 800 students.

Better planning. Using weighted allocations encourages creative and strategic use of resources because most of the budget is built annually from scratch. The school gets its total allocation and school leaders create a budget by aligning their resources with the school improvement plan.

Increased school-level authority. Under weighted allocations, school leaders have considerable discretion over how to spend their resources, and it pushes districts to provide additional funds previously controlled centrally.

Districts like Milwaukee and Houston allocate substitute dollars, energy costs and professional development dollars to the schools and allow schools to keep any savings.

Improved central office services. In Edmonton, the school district set up a system of buy-backs where most central office departments, in competition with external vendors, sell their services to schools. Schools receive money for services and can decide which to buy, if any. By competing for school dollars, Edmonton’s central offices have provided such excellence services that they have captured most of these school funds.

Transparent budget information. Position-based funding is confusing and fragmented. It’s built on multiple formulas that reflect political decisions, rather than instructional decisions. Weighted allocations would make school budgets easier for school staff and LSCs to create and for families and the public to understand.

Greater accountability and efficiency. Providing increased dollars to serve students with the highest needs and holding schools accountable for results creates greater school commitment and strategic use of resources. Using weighted allocations frees central office staff from spending time signing off on school purchases and allows them to work with schools to help principals link dollars to instructional priorities.

CPS budget leaders are interested in moving to weighted allocations for the Renaissance 2010 schools. This move is praiseworthy and could be extended to all schools. However, let’s be clear. By themselves, school-based budgeting and weighted allocations do not improve student achievement.

As Angus McBeath, the superintendent of the Edmonton Public Schools, has said, “[I]t allows the school to control enough of the variables that the principal and staff have a chance to be successful.”

Weighted allocations, as part of school-based budgeting, can be a powerful tool for driving educational reform when it is coupled with other essential elements including: transparent budget information, high quality, school-based training, increased school control over centralized resources, and the unflagging commitment of superintendents and boards of education to equity and instructional improvement.