Fund the Child: A Better Way to Help Disadvantaged
By Dan Lips
Funding and decision-making authority should follow the
student, not programs. This simple but revolutionary idea
is gaining bipartisan support across the country. And it could pave
the way for an overhaul of federal aid for disadvantaged
In January, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed that
Gotham adopt three new policies: "backpack funding," school based
management, and widespread school choice. This bundle of reforms -
known as the "weighted student formula" - embodies a new approach
to education finance.
With backpack funding, public schools receive per-pupil funding
based on individual students' characteristics. This consists of a
basic per-student grant for every child and then extra money for
students who are from low-income households, don't speak English at
home, or have special needs.
The second pillar of the plan is school-based management. School
leaders are given the authority to control their budgets and direct
their school's mission. Principals and school leaders get to be
entrepreneurs or CEOs of their schools, making decisions about
resource allocation, personnel, and the school's mission without
looking to a centralized bureaucracy for direction.
The third pillar is widespread public school choice. Students
can attend a school of choice, taking their funding with them.
School leaders have an incentive to offer a quality learning
environment and attract students to their school.
San Francisco has been a leader in this approach since 2000,
thanks to the efforts of former school superintendent Arlene
Ackerman. Today, the 60,000-student district has open enrollment
and real school-based management. It also has some of the highest
test scores of any city in California.
Ms. Ackerman, now a professor at Columbia University's Teacher
College, recently described the district's experience in the New
York Daily News: "In the period after the weighted formula was
implemented, San Francisco experienced six consecutive years of
academic gains. The system's principals, teachers and parents now
are among the biggest advocates for our student funding reforms -
because they have seen them succeed."
New York isn't the only place considering San Francisco's
successful approach. South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford has also
championed the "backpack funding model." So has D.C. School
Superintendent Clifford Janey. Elected officials and school leaders
from both parties are warming to student-based funding and
So is the education policy community. Republicans like former
Education Secretaries Bill Bennett and Rod Paige and Democrats like
former North Carolina Governor James B. Hunt Jr. and former White
House Chief of Staff John Podesta all endorse the idea of funding
With this strong bipartisan support, lawmakers on Capitol Hill
should take note and consider how similar principles could be
applied to federal education policy in the reauthorization of No
Child Left Behind.
The central premise of the backpack funding model is that school
finance should be simple and transparent. One way to embrace these
principles would be through an overhaul of the federal Title I
The purpose of Title I - funded at approximately $13 billion for
2007 - is to provide additional resources to communities with many
disadvantaged students. The current Title I formula is neither
student-centered nor transparent. Instead, Title I funds are
delivered through complex funding formulas created over decades of
congressional policymaking. The current formula is expensive to
operate and bureaucratic. It also has resulted in wide variances in
per-student funding across states and school districts.
Title I is ripe for simplification. Congress should put in place
a new, transparent funding formula based on the principles of
backpack funding. Title I grants could be delivered through a
simple formula based on the number of low-income students in a
And states could be allowed to use Title I funds in ways that
make it follow the child. Ms. Ackerman, Mayor Bloomberg, Mr.
Podesta, and Governor Sanford should be invited to testify and
inform Congress about the promise of this simple and transparent
system of school funding.
Funding the child is a unique education reform idea that appeals
to both the right and the left. It promotes school choice and
decentralization while addressing concerns about equity. It's a
school reform recipe that should attract wide bipartisan support -
at city hall, in state legislatures, and even on Capitol Hill.
Dan Lips is an
Education Analyst at the Heritage Foundation www.Heritage.org.