Worth the “Weight”

School Funding | 10/31/2019

Stacey Morley
Government Affairs Director

It’s no secret — education in our country has been historically inequitable. Education success is highly predicted by a child’s zip code. In other words, if a child lives in a low-income area, their educational prospects are significantly lower than their peers from wealthier areas. It runs counter to the American Dream for a child’s future to be predicated on where they live, and not on their own skills and abilities.

Fortunately, in recent decades, many states and school districts have acknowledged the severity of this issue — called the “achievement gap” — and have made strides to respond to it.

These states and many of the best researchers in the field of education agree that the most powerful and efficient way to address these inequalities is to allocate additional funds for low-income students. These funds are needed to make up for the differences in exposure to academic vocabulary, access to books in the home, and the opportunity to work with puzzles, technology, and even curriculum that can build up a child’s academic readiness. There are also critical differences in how teachers should be trained to teach reading and literacy skills for low-income students — many of which have been traumatized by their early experiences and exposure to crime, loss, and poverty. This additional training also requires additional resources.

While states receive some federal funds to mitigate some of these issues, many have recognized that low-income students need additional state support as well. Currently, 43 states, plus the District of Columbia, allocate additional funding for at-risk students. In contrast, four states – Alaska, Delaware, Idaho, and South Dakota – do not have any programs in place for funding at-risk students at all. The remaining three states are either transitioning to a new funding system or have an unfunded program. There are multiple ways to provide this K-12 funding to districts, and it is up to each state to choose its path.

While Arizona is a state that provides an extra funding weight, schools only receive additional funding if the school scores high enough on the state assessment. For example, a school with 60% or more low-income students must score in the top 27% of schools in the state. Currently, only 24% of students in charter schools and only 11% of district students receive that additional weight funding. [1]

What are our options?
If a state has a funding program in place, it likely falls under one of the following two main types of “weight systems.”

Flat Weight System
Within a flat weight system, districts receive funding for every student who meets certain demographic criteria. The weight or dollar amount is the same for every student, regardless of their individual characteristics. For example, every low-income student who is also an English language learner would receive the same amount of funding as other low-income students across the board, regardless of their English language proficiency level.

Multiple Weights System
Under a multiple weights system, multiple “weights” or dollar amounts are assigned based on individual factors. For example, in special education, a student’s disability level (classified as mild, moderate, or severe) directly impacts the amount of additional assistance they are given. Alternatively, a multiple weight formula can be more generalized; for example, each amount could be determined by grade level.

Does it work?
The research shows it does. On average, the graduation rates of low-income students is 16 percentage points lower than students who do not qualify for free or reduced lunch programs. Many studies show increased funding can positively impact the learning outcomes for at-risk students. A paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research discovered increased funding through legislative reforms or court orders led to gradual, measurable increases in the achievement levels of these students in low-income districts. [2]

Additionally, another study found increases in spending on pupils from impoverished families led to a reduction in adult poverty rates, higher lifetime earnings, and better educational performance. These results were not reproduced in students from non-poor families. Investing in low-income students helps disrupt the poverty cycle for generations to come. [3]

What are other states doing?
According to the Education Commission of States, the states providing aid to low-income students accomplish this through the state’s primary funding formula. These formulas can be adjusted with either an additional dollar amount or an additional weight applied to each qualifying student.

Take Maine, for example, where low-income students receive an extra weight of .15. This means that these students receive 15 percent more funding than students who are not economically disadvantaged. In contrast, other states created more complex systems for distributing this funding. Colorado is one of these states. There, at-risk students receive anywhere from 12 to 30 percent more funding than students who do not meet the qualifying criteria. The higher a district’s percentage of at-risk pupils climbs above the statewide average, the more at-risk funding is distributed — addressing concerns about “concentrations of poverty.”

Arizona still needs to do more
For true educational equity to exist in Arizona, all students must be given a fair opportunity to succeed. Studies have shown time and time again that providing additional funding and resources to at-risk students remarkably increases their chances of success.

Unfortunately, Arizona is falling short. There are still too many low-income students who are not getting the educational support they need because our current funding only gives funding to at-risk students who are in top-performing schools.

That’s why this legislative session, we strongly support the creation of a stronger weighting system for low-income students. We believe it’s not only the right thing to do, but also the best research-based approach to help all our students succeed.

Let us know what you think in the comments below, and let’s keep this conversation going on Facebook and Twitter.


[1] http://azchildren.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Results-Based-Funding-F...

[2] Lafortune, Julien, Jesse Rothstein, and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, School Finance Reform and the Distribution of Student Achievement (NBER Working Paper No. 22011), http://www.nber.org/papers/w22011 (accessed April 20, 2016).

[3] Jackson, Kirabo C., Rucker Johnson, and Claudia Persico, The Effect of School Finance Reforms on the Distribution of Spending, Academic Achievement, and Adult Outcomes (NBER Working Paper No. 20118), http://www.nber.org/papers/w20118 (accessed April 21, 2016). 

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