We can only solve what we can see. That was the gist of a national meeting on the Future of Education Finance in Baltimore last week sponsored by Allovue, Inc. and the Reason Foundation. Our A for Arizona crew was honored to participate in the event, which put education finance professionals and school district leaders in the same room to discuss what we love and hate about current education finance practices.

While opinions varied in the love category, we all agreed on one overarching concern: It is nearly impossible – even for a finance geek – to see how much money is allocated to an individual school. And because that is true, there is almost no way to tell if our efforts to create equity through enhanced funding for low-income or special needs students are successful.

Most states, including Arizona, fund students with a foundation amount that is then “weighted” or multiplied by a factor that represents the increased cost to educate a particular type of student – for example – those who speak English as a second language. Student weighted formulas are vitally important in establishing system equity based on the intention that additional dollars should follow higher need students to the school and then to the specialized teachers responsible for those students.

Arizona was one of the first states to design and implement such a formula back in the 1980’s. Now most states have followed suit, and we are all sharing a similar problem: we cannot tell if the dollars that should be creating more equity are actually serving the intended students. Or, in some cases, we can tell they probably are not.

What has happened is dollars are “earned” at the student level, added up at the school level, but then distributed to the district/system level.  Then, when they are allocated back to schools, the dollars are dispersed according to many competing interests that may not relate to student level weighting.

For example, we not only weight students, we weight funding by teacher experience. Teachers hone their craft in their early years, and more experienced teachers tend to gravitate towards higher wealth schools. The result is that our neediest schools are allocated less money and the least experienced teachers. This practice ultimately defeats attempts to provide equity in the funding formula. And it does so because two very worthy goals are competing, and one is losing out.

In short, the problem results from too many good intentions being wrapped up into the same formula. We would likely have been able to address this much sooner had we ever insisted on being able to see how much money is actually being spent at each individual school site. That insistence on transparency at the school site is now part of a nationwide push, and A for Arizonawas happy to discuss the efforts underway in Arizona’s Classrooms First Council discussions to renew our commitment to equity.

Last week in Baltimore, we discussed how to take a first step toward absolute transparency in how much money is allocated to every school so we can see which competing goals are “winning out”. We now have both the expertise and the available technology to see exactly how much money is following students into their chosen schools.

Disagreements over which deserving goals in the formula should be prioritized may become more difficult as the truth about disparities in funding are illuminated, but at the very least we will be able to have that discussion honestly. That’s a great first step.