Could better budgeting end The Achievement Plateau?
How "rolling averages" and other changes could provide more equity.
Let’s be clear: the School District of Philadelphia is chronically underfunded. I’ve covered this previously, and just for context: a 2020 report found that the poorest 20% of school districts [in Pennsylvania] have $7,866 less per student than the wealthiest 20%. That’s criminal. Even so, we can do a better job of distributing the limited resources we have. First, some background on the process.
Every February I get an email with an enrollment projection estimating the number of students my school is expected to serve the following year. It’s a complex algorithm that takes into account live births and a common practice in projecting school enrollments: the “cohort survival method.” It sounds horrifically macabre for elementary school purposes, but basically it averages the gains and losses for each grade cohort over three years, with the most recent year weighted the heaviest. That, in itself, is an issue since enrollment has been driven down by the pandemic and school closures. I can’t find data on this, and I’d guess that schools serving low-income students have been hit disproportionately hard by depressed enrollment this year.
Enrollment projections are important because a few weeks later they turn into dollars when my school’s budget gets loaded into our financial management system. This typically happens after 6PM on a Thursday or Friday in early March. The last few years I’ve learned to turn off my work email on my phone when budgets are expected to drop.
That budget contains a fixed number of “enrollment-driven” teachers — teachers assigned to my school to teacher the students projected to be in classrooms the following year. We get one teacher for every 30 students in K-3, one teacher for every 33 students in grades 4-8, and a certain number of special education and English-language teachers, based again on our projected populations of each. Every school also get assigned one secretary, one nurse, and one counselor.
Finally, we get a certain amount of Title 1 dollars — federal money distributed to schools based on levels of poverty and intended to provide some equity — and a discretionary budget equal to a fixed dollar amount multiplied by our enrollment projection. This year, the district increased that number for all schools — a commendable move that raises the funding floor for schools and provides more equity.
So what’s the issue here? And how could it be better?
First, enrollment projections could focus on more than just weighted averages for cohorts. A school’s overall enrollment could also be projected utilizing the “rolling average” principle, made popular by COVID infection data. COVID cases are usually reported using a seven or fourteen day rolling average to determine if they’re trending up or down. Epidemiologists understand that one day of a high number of reported infections may be an aberration, so they calculate the daily rate by lumping that data in with the six previous days. Similarly, one year of an aberrant enrollment projection could cause a major fluctuation in a school’s budget that could force unnecessary and inequitable staffing cuts.
That’s exactly what’s happening at my school this year. In my five years as principal, we’ve never served fewer than 525 students except for this year. In some years, we’ve enrolled over 550. Next year, we’re projected to serve just 482. That low projection lopped nearly $10,000 from our discretionary budget, along with two “enrollment-driven” teachers. Using the rolling average principle for five years of total enrollment, and we’d come closer to 522 students, which would restore that $10,000 and perhaps another teacher. And in Philadelphia every dollar and teacher matters.
Rolling averages could also be used when determining a school’s multiplier for discretionary funds. In Philadelphia, schools with a score above 50% on their school progress report get $175 per projected student. Schools below 50% get $275. In theory, this is designed to give struggling schools more money. On its surface, that’s a good thing — money can be used to hire additional staff to support struggling students or create a safer school environment. It becomes an issue, though, when a school like mine creeps over the 50% threshold for the first time in years and sees its funding reduced by nearly $50,000 ($60,000 if you consider the low projection). Using the rolling average principle for five years of data, and my school would score a 38%. For us, that would ensure we could establish a strong foundation of academic growth and a safe, supportive learning environment before reaching that higher rating tier (ironically labeled “Reinforce” schools) and having to produce the same outcomes with fewer dollars.
These two tweaks could provide even more equity in a system with limited resources. Even so, we shouldn’t stop there. Currently the threshold for getting an assistant principal is 650 students. It should be lowered. I manage a staff of 40 teachers and almost 40 other full and part-time staff. It’s an impossible job for one person. Our current counselor serves nearly 500 students (our budget this year caused us to cut our social worker position). The recommended student to counselor ratio is 250:1. We should aim to be closer to that.
Budgeting could also include more qualitative data and considerations for school-specific issues that can’t be captured by numbers. Some schools, for instance, have a strange layout that requires additional climate staff to ensure school safety. Some schools, particularly older ones, have facility issues that newer schools don’t. This is particularly important when schools are forced to pay for some capital improvements from their own discretionary funds. Part of my school, for instance, was built decades ago without a cooling system. It would cost me nearly $22,000 (that we don’t have) to install window AC units in seven classrooms. Conversations should be had with school staff, parents, and community members and long-term goals drafted before a final budget is drafted.
Contextual considerations like that would shift the current process, which is reactive — we have just days to argue for more resources for our school before final budgets are submitted — to a more proactive and less anxiety-inducing one.
I mentioned earlier that I only turn my work email off when I know the school budget will be loaded. It’s the only time all year I turn off work emails on my phone. That’s because I feel immense anxiety and pressure, knowing that every year I will see a number that will be inadequate to do the work I really want to do — and that our students and families really need us to do. This year marked the third consecutive year I delivered a draft budget to my staff that included fewer resources than the year prior. The calls I made to the teachers and the social worker who will need to find new schools (or new jobs) were gut-wrenching. We could do better. And we need to.
Thanks so much for reading. Have a great week.