Globe Editorial

Smart budget rule for schools: where kids go, money follows

February 7, 2011

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SUPERINTENDENT CAROL Johnson is proposing that the Boston School Committee adopt a “weighted student funding’’ formula as part of an $829 million budget for the next fiscal year. The concept is straightforward: A specific amount of money follows each student to his or her school; the amount varies according to the specific needs of the student; and principals have a lot of flexibility on how to use the money.

It’s a good way to address inequities in school funding that have built up over the years. The current system is prone to problems resulting from the careless application of enrollment data and programs that switch from school to school and year to year. A large high school of 1,200 students maintains the same staffing level even after shedding 400 students. And a small school with an influx of special needs students receives too little in the way of additional resources.

Johnson proposes to bring fairness to the system without increasing the overall budget. She attaches a dollar amount to each student, based on that child’s needs. A child with autism, for example, would bring $15,730 to a school in addition to the district’s base sum. A non-native English speaker in middle school would trigger an extra $3,200. A poor child might bring an additional $366 to a school. Middle-class students with no special needs receive the base sum.

Principals would be free to hire extra help or buy extra materials based on the specific needs of the student body. And administrators would be free of the persistent charge that school funding is inequitable in Boston. That could go a long way toward giving minority parents in Boston greater confidence in neighborhood schools as Johnson prepares to tackle a new student assignment plan.

The 25 schools that would receive less funding under this plan won’t be happy. But that’s the price for the adoption of a formula that distributes money to schools according to their demonstrated needs. What the public shouldn’t expect, however, is for the formula to equalize the quality of education. The right number of teachers may be in place. But no funding formula can assure the quality of those teachers.

Similarly structured funding formulas are already in place in New York City, San Francisco, and other urban districts. A common complaint of alienated students everywhere is that they “feel like a number.’’ In Boston, that could turn out to be a good thing.