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March 1, 2023
Vol. 80
No. 6

Improving Budget Fairness (Without the Pushback)

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Equity formulas can help districts meet their schools' varying needs and build fairer budgets.

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Improving Budget Fairness (Without the Pushback)
Credit: KIDDY0265 / iSTOCK
Wow, how did he go from beloved to vilified practically overnight?"
Two superintendents I have consulted through the years were reflecting on the fate of their colleague, Steve. (Not his real name.) Steve had been hired to improve equity in a suburban school district with a growing number of students living in poverty. But after a few years of leading discussions on equity in funding, he proposed a budget that intended to increase staffing in schools that served more students living in poverty. He was subsequently pushed out by a new board, fueled by a groundswell of upset parents, principals, and teachers who felt it was fine to help kids in need, but couldn't support raiding resources from their more well-off schools.
"I want to improve equity in my district," said the first superintendent, "but Steve's plight has me gun shy."
"I'm worried too," said the other. "I'm not sure my community would react any better."
Across the country, pushback to equity initiatives is growing, turning what many had hoped to be a movement of historically underserved students finally getting what they need for success into little more than some well-intentioned promises to do better without any meaningful action.
However, there is a way to create more equitable funding through the budget and keep the peace in the community: Equity formulas. An equity formula is a transparent and precise way to calculate need in all schools. It justifies shifting resources to schools with greater need, and also ensures that other schools still have ample resources to support their own students. In short, equity formulas show clearly how everyone gets what they need. These simple formulas have allowed districts to shift significant resources to students and schools with greater needs without other students, caregivers, and stakeholders feeling, however unjustly, that they are being slighted or overlooked.
To be clear, equity in a school context has many aspects. Students of color must feel welcome in their schools, educators must eliminate over-identification of students of color in discipline and special education referrals, students need to see themselves represented in the curriculum, and much more. Equity formulas address just one aspect of equity: Adjusting the budget so that students who need more, get more.

Equal Across the Board?

A decade ago, many districts embraced equality as the gold standard in staffing and resource allocation. Administrators reasoned that every school should have the same resources across the board: similar class sizes, one reading teacher, one instructional coach, etc. What could be fairer, the thinking went.
As school and district leaders began to embrace the concept of equity, however, these old staffing patterns didn't look so reasonable anymore. Was one reading teacher in each school really fair? If school A had 100 students struggling to read and school B had just 25, then the one-per-school rule seemed very unjust to the students (and reading teacher) in school A.
Sure, school A might have received Title I dollars if it had a high percentage of students living in poverty, but this probably wouldn't balance the scales. One district I worked with is typical of many others. They knew some of their 14 elementary schools served students with much greater needs than others and wanted to do right by their students living in poverty, who represented 50 percent of the total students in the district. Their plan was to provide one reading teacher per school from the operating budget and allow Title I dollars to supplement the schools with students with greater needs. This meant the Title I schools had two FTE reading teachers, not one. This felt equitable to school leaders.
The outcomes were still not equitable, however. Sixty-two percent of the white 3rd graders, who came predominantly from wealthier households, read at grade level, but just half as many of the nonwhite students, who mostly were economically disadvantaged, did so. In other words, Title I schools got more funding, but still not enough. A deeper dive revealed that even with the extra reading teacher, some of the Title I schools couldn't provide intervention to all students who needed it. A few of the poorer schools had one reading teacher per 90 struggling readers, while some of the wealthier schools had one reading teacher per 25 struggling readers.

I've been heartened to see many district leaders realize the budget can be one way to address equity.

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As a former school board "budget guru," superintendent, and consultant to a few hundred school districts, I've been heartened to see many district leaders realize the budget can be one way to address equity. I've also been pleasantly surprised to see many school boards eagerly adopt an "equity isn't equal" mindset. More recently, however, I've been saddened to see the fierce pushback that has emerged in some districts against efforts to provide more equitable staffing.
Why do people seem to like resource equity in principle more than in practice? I think it's because when supporters imagine equity, they think of it as addition. But in practice, equity through transfer is more common—and potentially upsetting.

Addition Vs. Transfer

Consider Figure 1, which you have probably seen taped to the walls of a school or district leader's office. This now-famous image illustrates equity through addition.
Figure 1 0323 Levenson
The graphic on the left shows three kids of different heights trying to watch a baseball game from behind a fence. One student towers over the fence and can see the game well. One is just able to peek over the top of the fence. And the third has no view at all. This portion of the image is labeled "EQUALITY." It's equal because everyone gets one box.
The partner image on the right, labeled "EQUITY," has all three students easily watching the game. The student in the middle gets an extra box and the student on the right gets two extra boxes. Now they can all view the game. Everyone gets what they need.
There is one catch, however. To get to equity, we were required to add three more boxes. There are six boxes in the equity scene, but only three in the equality side. This is equity through addition.
The Montgomery County School District in Maryland was an early adopter of equity through addition. Former Superintendent Jerry Weast identified high-needs schools in this generally affluent county and declared that these students needed more. The district reduced class sizes, increased staffing, enhanced coaching, and expanded intervention in these schools. Student achievement increased, especially at the elementary schools.
Weast was a visionary who cared about kids, but he was also politically astute. He added services where needed, but managed never to divert resources from anyone else. In fact, he added more advanced learning opportunities for everyone. Winners all around. He did this by increasing total district spending. In other words, he bought three extra boxes.
Most districts, however, don't have the luxury of increasing spending for students with greater needs without shifting resources. This means they try to achieve equity through transfer, which is the more common and, often, more realistic approach (see fig. 2).
Figure 2 0323 Levenson
Here, the child who can't see over the fence is given the box from the tallest student, who is still able to see the game without a box. In the end, everyone can see the game, and no extra boxes were needed because the tallest student's box was taken away and given to the shortest student. This flavor of equity works without additional spending.
The problem? While everyone technically gets what they need, this approach often leads to significant pushback from wealthier parents and the principals and staff of their schools. I have seen packed school board meetings and heard principals fume and teachers lament these types of equity shifts in spending, because they worry that their school will lack the resources to serve their children. Their boxes are being taken away, whether the students need them or not. Their schools may have fewer needs, they argue, but those needs still must be met.
The potential pushback against equitable funding through transfer shouldn't be underestimated. A veteran principal I worked with who led a Title I school rightfully bemoaned the lack of resources for her students.
"Our needs are great, but our resources are not," she said. "We need more reading teachers, instructional coaches, smaller classes, and greater mental health services."
Title I dollars helped a little, but not enough. She was frustrated that schools in the district serving mostly affluent kids got nearly the same resources.
A year later, that principal assumed leadership of the most affluent school in the district. When the conversation turned to budgeting, she gave an impassioned plea not to rob resources from her new school to help the kids in her old school. Her new students had needs, too, and it wouldn't be fair to steal from them. Her new school had kids reading below grade level, and they needed a reading teacher, too.
If this principal couldn't support equitable staffing and spending—if even she couldn't get on board with equity through transfer—then who could?
What I learned from this principal and many other stakeholders is that they genuinely worry that shifting resources isn't a case of every student getting what they need, but rather shifting the shortfall. They believe that to help one school, another school must be under-resourced. Equitable funding can feel like a debate about which children are most deserving of learning to read, with the unspoken assumption that some kids will always be harmed. While some will argue that past injustices justify the historically privileged getting less than they need, politically this is a hard sell.
But what if the district could guarantee that everyone had enough? That they were not just shifting the pain, but guaranteeing sufficient resources for all—that everyone will still be able to see the baseball field over the fence?
That's exactly what equity formulas do and why they reduce pushback.

The Formula as a Solution

An equity formula is a transparent, objective, numeric way of calculating need. For reading teachers, for example, a formula, based on field research, might look like:
Equity = 1 reading specialist for every 35 students who score below benchmark on the universal screener.
For instructional coaches an equity formula could be:
Equity = 1 coach for every 20 teachers with less than 5 years of teaching experience.
Let's go back to the principal who feared what equity budgeting shifts might mean for her more well-off students. The data revealed she did have kids who struggled to read, but not many. Fifteen, to be exact. Meanwhile, her former school had 105 struggling readers.
Since we determined that a school needs a full-time reading teacher for every 35 students who are struggling, applying the equity formula dictates her school should get .43 FTE, or one half-time reading specialist. (15/35 = 0.43).
Reducing to a half-time reading teacher now seemed OK to her, since every student who needs reading help in her school would still get it. There will be less staffing, but no sacrificing one group of students for another.

Equity formulas can help smooth the way to more just funding of schools.

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The formula also indicated that the principal's former, high-needs school needed three full-time reading teachers. When the equity formula was applied across the district, it revealed that most of the non-Title I schools were over-staffed and the Title I schools were under-resourced. Most important, on the basis of the evidence-based equity formula, everyone learned exactly how much staff was required in each school so that every student got what they needed. The transparency and clarity of the needs assured stakeholders that each school had enough resources to succeed and caused nearly all of them to support shifting surplus resources and improving equity.
While each district must chart its own path toward equity formulas, a few tips can help:
  • Create equity formulas for a few positions, not all.
  • Start with either the most strategically important roles, such as reading teachers and instructional coaches, or the most hotly debated staff-allocation decisions, often social workers or mental health counselors.
  • Use research-based staffing levels, not trade association recommendations. For example, the professors who helped pioneer the evidenced-based approach to school finance adequacy, Picus and Odden (www.picusodden.com), have created recommended staffing levels such as the two figures used in the examples. Often trade associations (school nurses, counselors, speech and language therapists, etc.) create staffing goals that may not be realistic for many school systems.
  • Engage principals in setting the formulas. Shifting resources through equity formulas is about reducing pushback. If principals are at the table, they more often support the logic behind the equity formula.
Districts have created equity formulas for many other positions, including classroom teachers, social workers, school psychologists, and special educators. In all cases that I've seen, staffing shifted, equity improved, and pushback was minimal.
One district, swamped by the mental health needs of its students in the aftermath of the pandemic, hired a few more mental health counselors and placed most of them in Title I schools. No one was happy with the decision, which surprised the superintendent. The principals had all requested more counseling support, and more support was provided. Higher-needs schools got even more help, which respected their commitment to equitable funding. Every principal, however, felt their school needed more and was more deserving of the new staff than other schools. While central office leaders had debated where to place new counselors for months, the decision felt arbitrary and wrong to many.
The district then turned to equity formulas to reduce the pushback and be fairer. School leaders screened every student in the district for trauma and mental health needs. Interestingly, they already had the universal screener, but had never connected its data to staffing. With this data in hand, they decided to assign counseling staff to schools based on one FTE per every 75 identified students in need of counseling. Some folks were surprised that higher-income schools had such high levels of need, and some schools realized they didn't need full-time counseling staff. The pushback fizzled because the new staffing plan seemed fair, transparent, thoughtful, and most important, student-centered. No one felt their kids were being short-shifted. All kids were valued, even as more resources went to some schools.
There is urgency to do more for students with the greatest needs, but failing to ensure that all kids get what they need can undermine these efforts. Equity formulas can help smooth the way to more just funding for schools. By increasing the transparency and objectiveness of key staffing decisions, ensuring those with greater needs get what is needed and those with fewer needs also get support, and engaging principals in the development of the allocation formulas, equity formulas improve resource distribution without the pushback that might derail other well-intentioned efforts.

Nate Levenson, a former district superintendent, is president at New Solutions K12 and the co-author of It’s Time for Strategic Scheduling: How to Design Smarter K–12 Schedules That Are Great for Students, Staff, and the Budget (ASCD).

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