Relating Resource Allocation to a Performance-Focused Agenda
As the focus on the improvement of learning becomes more central, what educational leaders are expected to do and accomplish through the allocation of resources has changed. Historically, supporters of education were more concerned with the dollar amount allocated per pupil, and they spent much of their political capital advocating for increases from one year to the next.
Educational leaders were responsible for creating balanced budgets with the dollars they had available and accounting for expenditures in a responsible manner– a complex task in large school districts. Little attention was paid to how resources were related to performance or what type of performance was expected. The standards-based reform movement of the past several decades changed the situation fundamentally, by prompting new questions about what the learning standards should be and how educators should be held accountable for improved performance.
In response, educators have become more focused on results, while taking the stance that higher performance cannot be accomplished without adequate resources. Thus, a sea change has occurred, prompting educational leaders to consider how resource allocation is related to building high-performing systems that work for all students. As they take seriously the charge to become more learning-focused, leaders critically examine the equity, efficiency, and effectiveness of existing resource allocation policies and practices and make decisions regarding ways in which resources might be reallocated in more productive ways.
This resource reallocation challenge is as important in the present era of standards-driven reform and accountability for results. Given the considerable variation in the needs, capacities, and contexts of schools, it is striking– though not surprising– that for the most part, resource allocation patterns in K–12 education are relatively uniform.
The uniformity of leaders’ responses to these varying needs may simply signal a safe course: the most easily defended set of decisions in a context of competition for scarce resources. Beneath the surface of this course of action, however, conflicting expectations, tensions, and barriers may be impeding leaders’ ability to think more creatively about how to organize and allocate limited resources and act strategically. These barriers exist at all levels of the educational policy system.
In such a situation, leaders might wish for definitive understanding about the impact of particular investments on student learning, yet the state of knowledge here is incomplete. The highly contextual nature of schools, the variations with which any particular improvement strategy is implemented, the motivational conditions that are present, and the need to adapt strategies to fit specific circumstances all interact with the resources brought to bear on learning improvement goals.
For districts wishing to commence anew with student-weighted allocation systems (whereby funds are allocated on the basis of student types), offering clear-cut guidance on what increments should be assigned to each student type is a crucial first step. However, a definitive response plainly cannot exist in the current state of fiscal allocation policy. The difficulty here is that currently there is no efficient resource allocation system whereby an answer can be reliably extrapolated.
Policymakers are consequently forced into determining fiscal policy without information relating to expenditure on student types. They are forced to do so with no understanding of the workings of allocation policies at different levels (federal, state, and local) either together or in conflict. Policymakers have little clarity on expenditure for different student types at the school level, nor awareness of the types of policies that would be more effective in guaranteeing that dollars reach students in the proposed ways.
School finance today works in opposition to the focused and effective utilization of resources that promote improved education of students. Just as an archaic computer can no longer function properly in a technological environment inundated with the latest software, this nation’s school finance system frozen by a combination of unrelated expenditure policies and administrative plans can no longer serve the needs of an educational system calling for reform. A new model is required, to do one thing– ensure that every child receives instruction for his or her needs in order to become an involved citizen having total participation in this modern economy.
Current school finance systems fund programs, uphold institutions, and offer resources and staff employment so the school and district administrators can fully execute the multitude of laws and regulations that have become part of public education. However, the methods employed by today’s school finance systems– deploying expenditure levels based on habit and not need, covering up funds’ actual allocations, supporting institutions whether they are viable or not, hypocritically addressing equity, spending resources flippantly, attempting to make adults accountable by compliance and not by results– confuses the links between resources and academic aims that make finance relevant to student performance.
The school finance system evolved in a era in which programs were funded, and students passed or failed without much regard paid to the role of funding in student performance. This pattern was sustainable then, as jobs were available for people with low skills, and the vast majority of workers were not required to be well educated in order to maintain a healthy economy. Unfortunately, that legacy has proven unworkable in today’s highly technological, information-based economy, where low-skilled workers cannot rise above the poverty level and overseas workers are able to compete effectively in the market for skilled jobs, once available solely to Americans.