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Does money matter for struggling students?

Can schools do a better job helping at-risk students if they spend more money on them? It’s a question that’s been debated for years, but the answer is yes, one expert on Monday told the Interim Committee on the Study of the Financing of Public Schools.

“As states spend more on needy students they get improved performance,” said Justin Silverstein, vice president of Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, a Denver-based school finance consulting firm.

Silverstein cited a study done by his firm that compared several states’ spending on at-risk, special education and English language students with results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests. (See link at bottom of this story for Silverstein’s PowerPoint presentation.)

The same thought was echoed later by another witness, Steve Dobo, of Colorado Youth for a Change. “It takes more money to serve them [at risk youth] well.”

“So, throwing money at the problem does help solve the problem,” quipped panel member Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs. A retired music teacher, Merrifield is chair of the House Education Committee and an advocate for public education and increased school funding.

Those comments didn’t come until the second half of Monday’s meeting, but they highlighted the central issue at the heart of the committee session, which was devoted to at-risk and student-centered funding.

Student-centered funding has become a hot topic in education as many schools struggle with stubbornly low achievement levels and wide achievement gaps. National studies recently have been done on this issue, some states and districts are experimenting with the concept and an unsuccessful attempt was made during the 2009 legislative session to move Colorado is that direction.

Two assumptions lie behind the idea: Some students (the poor, special education students and English language learners) need extra help and attention to achieve, and such help can be more effective when decisions about how to help such students – and how to spend money on them – are made at the level of the individual school.

A key presentation at Monday’s meeting was made by Kelly Hupfeld and Mark Fermanich of the Denver for Education Policy Analysis at the University of Colorado-Denver. They are completing a study on the implications of student-centered funding for Colorado.

They noted that the current school finance system distributes state money – including some factors that provide extra funding for at-risk kids – to districts but that districts distribute funds to schools based significantly on staffing ratios, with little discretion allowed to individual schools.

Their report also noted (as did several other speakers) that Colorado’s 1994 school finance law was designed to ensure base funding and equity among school districts. It wasn’t set up for an educations system based on standards and student proficiency, or to reward outcomes, such as test score growth.

The current system, the report concludes, leads to inequities within school districts. Plus, existing data systems don’t provide much information about the relationship between spending and student achievement, the current finance system doesn’t provide incentives for improvement and the state Department of Education has limited capacity for helping to districts.

The preliminary recommendations of the report are:

The state should adopt a “statewide vision” for a student-centered funding system but not impose a system.

Districts should be given incentives to move to student-centered funding.

State support is needed to help districts change funding patterns.

Effective data systems have to be built to support such systems.

Overall education funding needs to be accountable, equitable and adequate.

Hupfeld and the report also highlighted several cautions about student-centered funding:
“Student-centered funding in and of itself is not the answer” because we don’t know exactly what works for at-risk students.

Effective implementation of such funding programs can take three to five years.

“A very real challenge is the politics of redistribution” when some schools and district gain funding while others lose revenue. “The political implications of that should not be underestimated.”
And, student-centered funding doesn’t solve other issues like adequacy and equity of state funding.
(See end of story for link to the center’s PowerPoint and a draft of their study.)

Leaders from the Poudre Valley Schools, which has a modified student-centered system, also testified to the committee. An Aurora Public Schools administrator also testified about the financial flexibility given to schools in that district.

“There’s more than one way to get at this,” commented Rep. Karen Middleton, D-Aurora, chair of the interim committee.

While Monday’s agenda didn’t specifically include a discussion of how to best define at-risk students, panel members and witnesses kept coming back to that issue.

The general rule of thumb is that students who are eligible for free lunches (and, in some cases, reduced price lunches) are considered “at-risk.”

Alex Medler of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, which has studied child poverty extensively, noted, “Poverty is the single strongest indicator … but it’s often wrong.” He and several other speakers noted that factors such as failing grades, lack of growth on achievement tests, truancy and other behavioral and academic indicators are part of being “at-risk.” (Other kinds of children with special needs, such as English language learners and special education students, are identified in much more individual ways.)

The interim committee is studying several issues and possible changes in school finance and is expected to make recommendations to the 2010 legislature. But, several other legislative interim panels also are studying financial issues, including one committee that’s looking at the state’s overall fiscal picture.

Noting the state’s tight financial situation, Middleton, said, “I know there’s no money right now. What we’re trying to do is build a system that the money can be phased in to.”

Do your homework

Interim committee website
Draft study on student-centered funding by Center for Education Policy Analysis
School finance history, issues from Colorado School Finance Project
Funding impacts on student achievement from Augenblick, Palaich and Associates
School finance primer from Legislative Council staff
Snapshot of K-12 spending for the 2009-10 school year from Legislative Council

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