Smith Elementary and Carson Elementary are about 4 miles apart in east Denver. Named after longtime educators, both schools opened in the 1950s and serve about 400 students today.
But Carson and Smith couldn’t be more different when it comes to student demographics and school funding. Carson, which serves a largely white and middle-class population, gets $8,084 per student from Denver Public Schools, according to district data. Smith, where most students are Latino and Black and come from low-income families, gets $11,540 per student.
Denver adopted its weighted funding formula — which the district calls student-based budgeting — in 2009. The system is meant to promote equity by directing more money to students with higher needs, such as those who qualify for subsidized lunches or those learning English.
It’s also meant to give principals more autonomy. Instead of every school having one assistant principal and one psychologist, for example, a principal can choose to hire one assistant principal, a part-time psychologist, and a part-time dean.
Smith Elementary uses its higher funding — $1.15 million more this year than Carson — to hire more staff to keep class sizes small so teachers can give more attention to students who are often several grade levels behind, said Principal Emily El Moudaffar. The school buys supplemental reading curriculum to help students catch up and pays for field trips, an after-school soccer club, and every single pencil and crayon.
“Our students don’t bring any classroom supplies at all,” El Moudaffar said. “We purchase every classroom material. We tell parents, ‘Your job is to get your child to school on time every day.’”
At Carson, meanwhile, Principal Mirriah Elliott said it’s not possible to run the school on her allotment. Carson’s PTA raised $140,000 this year, but even with extra dollars, Elliott is making cuts due to declining enrollment. A significant number of Carson students transferred to private schools during the pandemic, and Carson may lose an assistant principal, a third grade teacher, an interventionist, and two teacher coaches.
“A lot of times it’s having to get rid of things our students really do need,” Elliott said.
El Moudaffar is making cuts for next year too, as school improvement funds for Smith taper off, but the high-poverty school will still have more staff than Carson.
“Yes, we get more money per pupil,” El Moudaffar said, “and we have students who need more intensive supports and that takes more manpower, so that’s where the money goes.”
Denver Public Schools prides itself on equity, and giving more money to students with higher needs hasn’t been controversial in the past. But with enrollment declining and the district moving to close schools, the concept of funding schools per student is increasingly coming under fire.
Neither Carson nor Smith are likely on the chopping block, but several smaller schools could be.
“If we fund schools based on enrollment, we will continue to have these dying schools,” said Radhika Nath, a parent who serves on a district committee tasked with developing criteria for when to close or consolidate under-enrolled schools. “It’s a vicious cycle.”
The district recently commissioned a study from Education Resource Strategies, a national nonprofit consulting firm, about how its systems are set up to respond to declining enrollment.
Student-based budgeting is not the cause of Denver’s school closure woes, ERS Partner Kristen Ferris said. However, many districts with student-based budgeting do it differently than Denver in that they provide a baseline of funding to each school to cover the basics. Weighted student funding is on top of that. But there are tradeoffs to that model, Ferris said.
“If you have a fixed pie, then any differentiation you do for student groups takes away from the baseline that every student gets,” she said. “You’re always trading off between maximizing differentiation and funding your baseline.”
What does weighted student funding look like?
Elementary schools, for example, get:
$619 per student who qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch
$100 more for students who are “direct certified” for free lunch because they live in foster care or are experiencing homelessness, or their family receives food stamps
$535 per English language learner
$162 per student who qualifies for gifted and talented programming
Schools that have a typical caseload of students who qualify for mild or moderate special education services don’t get extra funding. But schools with higher than average caseloads get $2,835 for every additional student they serve.
Denver’s current model maximizes differentiation. While the average per-student funding this year was $9,614, some schools got as little as $6,500 per student while others got nearly $14,000, according to district data. A few of the district’s small high schools that serve students at risk of dropping out received more than $20,000 per student.
That difference is not entirely due to weighted student funding. Extra money goes to Title I schools where a majority of students qualify for subsidized lunches. Denver also gives out “tiered support” to schools with low test scores to help boost achievement, a strategy that one study found was working. And it offers one-time budget assistance to schools that request it, as Carson and others did this year, and subsidies to schools with fewer than 215 students.
This multilayered system has been criticized by principals and parents at schools that don’t qualify for as much extra funding and struggle to afford the staff they need.
“Our system is critically flawed,” said Principal Sonia Geerdes. “McKinley-Thatcher [Elementary School] can’t afford a full-time school psychologist or a full-time school nurse without additional budget assistance. These are resources that DPS has promised to our families, our community, and our taxpayers — and these roles should be guaranteed for all schools.”
Calls for changing Denver’s student-based budgeting model tend to be loudest every two years during school board elections. But despite some board members’ vocal criticism of the system — member Scott Baldermann recently said underfunding some schools is “a choice” and “not something we have to do” — the board as a whole has not taken up the issue.
Board Treasurer Scott Esserman, who chairs the finance committee, said that under the board’s new governance structure, that kind of operational decision rests with Superintendent Alex Marrero, who started last July and is in the midst of developing a strategic plan. But, Esserman said, “as an individual board member, I am certainly open to having discussions about alternative school budgeting.”
At Carson and Smith, principals Elliott and El Moudaffar recognize the challenges of the district’s funding model. Schools that serve students with high needs whose PTAs raise $100 in a good year need that extra funding and more. And yet schools on the opposite end of the spectrum have to scrimp to afford mental health workers and hold auctions to buy smart boards.
Either way, said Smith’s El Moudaffar, “it’s never enough.”
Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at firstname.lastname@example.org.