I recently heard a Senator proclaim quite pompously that 'people just don't understand how we fund education.' It made me want to say, some Legislator's don't understand how we fund education either! Last week @UtahTeacher posted an excellent overview on education funding (here), so in this post I would like to examine a specific education funding policy that falls prey to a basic fallacy.
Most Utahns have heard of the WPU or Weighted Pupil Unit. The WPU is a way money is equally distributed to school districts and charter schools, but it is not the amount it costs to educate a student for one year. For the 2011-2012 school year, the WPU in Utah is $2,816 (source). The per pupil spending is actually closer to $6,600 though. But does it cost the same to educate every student?
Absolutely not! Obviously students who received specialized services (ELL, Resource, Accelerated etc.) cost more, but students who are 'mainstream' cost different amounts as well. In high school, a student who takes a schedule heavy with art classes costs a different amount than a student who takes shop. If a student must retake a class, there is a cost associated with that. The bottom line is this: any proposal that attaches money specifically to a student is based on the false premise that students are equal
and the same.
This year there are a few bills based on that premise, I will highlight the most egregious:
H.B. 123 Education Savings Accounts by Rep.
This bill would give 9th-12th graders an education savings account to pay for their classes and fees; classes could be taken at charter schools, traditional public schools, or in online classes from a public or private provider. Students would receive $6,400 the first year. Even traditional public schools would then charge the student's account to take classes. If a student would like to take a more expensive applied technology class, they may have to pay out of pocket for their math if their course loads exceeds the $6,400. At the end of the year any money remaining in the account would carry over. If the student graduated with a balance they could use the money for colleges in Utah. If a student has not earned a diploma after four years, and has no more money remaining, they will have to pay for their own classes to complete their high school diploma. It will cost the state over $17 million dollars the first year, and $2 million in ongoing funds to maintain the financial program it will require. There is no mention in the bill how this will work for students with special needs. It is conceivable to imagine high schools offering less sports, clubs and classes outside those required if this law takes effect. Rep. Dougall admitted to the State School Board that he realized it cost a different amount to educate every student, but he still is making a proposal that funds every student the same way.
I have often heard it argued that we need to fund students and not systems. And to a point I agree. But there is an importance in systems. It is through systems that schools can provide specialized services, it is through systems that high school students can enjoy sports, student government, proms and clubs. Systems provide transportation and are vital in rural areas of the state. If we take funding students to the extreme, as Rep. Dougall's proposal does, it disregards and will eventually decimate the systems that we value.