Seeks consultant to design a new, more equitable system
The Boston Public Schools is looking for help to replace weighted student funding with a new way to allocate money to schools, one that would guarantee quality programs at every school.
BPS posted a formal request for proposals on Nov. 8, seeking a consulting company to design the new system in collaboration with parents, staff, and students. The RFP lays out a work schedule of up to 30 months. The proposal is to be developed by the spring of 2022, refined over the next year, and implemented in year three.
The move to replace weighted student funding comes after growing anger among parents over budget cuts imposed by the system. Weighted student funding has given many principals, with some participation by school councils, the job of deciding which vital program to ax. Librarian or science teacher? Art or music? Guidance counselor or reading program?
Parents demanded all of the above, but that wasn’t an option. And some schools fared much better than others. Generally, those that suffered the most were schools with many low-income Black and brown children.
At least as far back as 2017, the current School Committee chair, Jeri Robinson, wanted the BPS to come up with a budget that, as she put it, “reflects really what it takes to educate the students that we have.”
In 2019, parents organized through the Boston Education Justice Alliance came up with a 21-point list of what BPS students should find in school, no matter which school they choose.
Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, almost as soon as she started her job, called for a “quality guarantee” to parents and students. “What are the foundational resources and staffing that should be at every school?” she asked at a parent meeting in September 2019. “Once we have that agreement, then we fund it.”
With a three-year commitment from former Mayor Marty Walsh to add $100 million to the budget, Cassellius hired family liaisons for schools where many parents are not fluent in English, and also added other staff outside the constraints of weighted student funding.
The new RFP is the first clear indication that Cassellius plans a complete overhaul of school funding. The new funding system, the RFP says, must make it possible to have “unique programming at schools while ensuring that students at all schools have a certain set of guaranteed resources and positions.” It should provide enough money to pay for inclusion of students with disabilities and also for “new English learner programming under the LOOK Act.” The LOOK Act, passed four years ago, allows for more instruction in students’ home languages, but BPS has not done much with it yet.
The RFP also says the need for changing the funding system is the result of falling BPS enrollment, which it calls “a stark reality” that is “affecting different schools and student groups unequally.”
But many parents fault BPS policies for the enrollment decline. They say parents leave at least in part because they can’t predict from year to year what programs their school will offer or even whether the school will exist at all.
Weighted student funding, introduced in Boston 10 years ago, was promoted as a fair way to distribute money to schools. Each school gets an amount that’s based both on the number of students enrolled and on special characteristics of the students.
The formula is complicated, with “weights” that vary by grade, disability, and other factors. A school gets roughly four times as much funding to educate an autistic student as it gets for a student with no disabilities. For a middle school student with very little fluency in English, the school receives about a third more than for a student who speaks English fluently.
The BPS website says the weights are calculated to reflect students’ “individual learning needs,” In practice, they are mostly designed to help schools meet legal and contractual requirements. For example, federal law dictates extra services for students with disabilities. That means schools have to get more money for students with disabilities. The Boston Teachers Union contract sets class size limits that vary with grade level—22 for grade 1 and 2, but 25 for grades 3 through 5. Weighted student funding provides more for children in grades 1 and 2 than for those in grades 3 through 5.
BPS is not legally required to provide smaller classes when students face extra barriers due to poverty, and the WSF formula makes only a minimal adjustment for students who meet the state’s definition of “economically disadvantaged”—less than 10%. The state Student Opportunity Act guidelines say Boston should spend roughly three quarters extra for low-income students.
That defect could be fixed by changing the weights. But weighted student funding has a more fundamental flaw: It only works when schools have the right number of students to fill their classes.
The BPS budget office uses the example of a third-grade class, where it takes the funding for 21 students to pay for the teacher. With more than 21, there may be money to pay for specialists and other staff that are part of a quality education program. If there are only 21, there’s no money for those programs.
Weighted student funding is consistent with a business model of public schools in which schools compete for students—winners prosper, losers wither. But enrollment numbers are often caused by factors beyond the control of the school staff, such as the decision to close all middle schools, which now threatens the future of any K–5 elementary school that can’t add a sixth grade.
Weighted student funding can also make it easier to hold down spending because staff cuts are made school by school, by the very people who would be protesting if the cuts came from the central office.
Meanwhile, quality costs, and Cassellius has not been shy about saying so. In 2020, the superintendent told the City Council Ways and Means Committee, “We’re not talking $100 million. We’re talking a lot more to be able to get to that high quality that we want, so I just want to put it on people’s radar, that these are not small numbers.”
The RFP for “reimagining” school funding in BPS has a closing date of Nov. 29 with the contractor to be chosen next month.
This article was produced by Schoolyard News and syndicated by the MassWire news service of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. If you want to see more reporting like this, make a contribution at givetobinj.org. Donations will be matched by a national funder through November and December.
Alain edits Boston Parents Schoolyard News, an independent website for news and opinion about the Boston Public Schools. He is also a board member with Citizens for Public Schools and a former magazine, television, and newspaper writer.