A.B. Hill Elementary in South Memphis receives nearly $13,500 per student — nearly three times the amount received by Mt. Pisgah Middle School, located on the other side of the county in Cordova.

Tutonial “Toni” Williams, chief of finance
PHOTO CREDIT: Shelby County Schools

It’s the second year the Shelby County Schools district has budgeted how much money each school receives based on the needs of its students. If student circumstances include poverty, low test scores, learning English as a second language, or frequent moves from one school to another, the school receives more money from the district.

A.B. Hill is in the district’s Innovation Zone improvement program for schools that score the lowest on state test and about 87% of its students live in poverty. Mt. Pisgah students have test scores similar to the district’s average, but fewer than 30% of students come from low-income families.

Student-based budgeting is a big change from traditional funding methods that distribute money primarily based on how much it costs to pay teachers. Under traditional funding, schools with high-need students often get less money because they usually employ less experienced and lower-paid teachers.

Toni Williams, the district’s chief financial officer, said student-based budgeting is the best way to make sure students have what they need and give more power to school leaders to decide how to meet those needs. Schools with more students who face learning challenges, language barriers, or other difficulties need more resources to educate them. Schools use the extra funds to hire more staff, purchase materials, and increase early literacy training.

Williams said the district wanted to wait a couple of years before closely evaluating the effects on student achievement and school improvement so it would have enough data to analyze. But after principals shared positive experiences about having more say in how best to meet student needs, the district increased the dollars in the formula last year. The district has not finished analyzing its data to determine any direct correlation between the switch to student-based budgeting last year and school improvements such as higher test scores, lower suspension rates, and fewer student absences.

“The dollars follow the student and that’s important,” she said.

The funding method is already being used in several urban school systems in Nashville, Indianapolis, Denver, Boston, and Houston.

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This year, $405 million, about 39% of the district’s $1 billion budget, was allocated to schools using the student-based budgeting formula. In 2018-19, the first year the district started using the formula, it allocated $377 million.

For 2019-2020, each K-12 student allocation started with a base of $3,530, up 4% from last year, according to the district’s adopted budget. No school received less than the base amount per student. Schools with more students who face learning challenges, language barriers, or other difficulties received more money for resources. The maximum a student could generate from budget-based district funding was $6,795 before adding money from federal and state grants.

Below is a breakdown of how much additional money followed students based on the five characteristics prioritized by Shelby County Schools:

  • Mobility: For schools where students frequently enroll midyear, the district added another $1,412 per student based on 2018-19 — four times more than the district allocated last year. Williams, the finance chief, said last year’s data showed that more students were transferring between schools in the middle of the school year and that more attention to the issue was needed.
  • Grade level: Every student in kindergarten through second grade was allocated an additional $1,059. The district allocated $706 for each student in grades three through five.
  • Student performance: The formula funneled $353 for students with the highest and lowest scores in the district to boost academic support for low performers and create more advanced classes and enrichment for high performers based on 2017-18 state tests.
  • Poverty: Schools received an additional $353 this year for each student living in poverty.
    English language learners: $88 per student for those learning English was also new this year.

Below is the average of per-pupil spending by school type, including state and federal grants:

  • $17,018 at four specialty schools (about 700 students). Two are for students with severe disabilities and the third is Hollis F. Price Middle College High, a small school run in collaboration with LeMoyne-Owen College.
  • $8,402 at 25 Innovation Zone schools (about 11,000 students). The iZone program launched in 2012 to improve test scores at schools on the state’s priority list of lowest performers.
  • $7,721 at 12 schools in the Continuous Improvement Zone (about 6,400 students). Schools in this program have improved enough to escape the state’s priority list.
  • $7,490 at 56 traditional schools (about 34,000 students) that are not in any district program. Traditional schools can be elementary, middle, or high schools.
  • $7,105 at eight Whitehaven Empowerment Zone schools (about 5,800 students). The program is a smaller, neighborhood-focused version of the iZone to prevent low-performing schools from showing up on the state’s priority list.
  • $7,081 at 38 optional schools (about 28,000 students). Students must take admission tests for these magnet programs within a school. Some also require good behavior and attendance records.

You can search for your school and its district ranking here:

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Under the previous budgeting formula, Craigmont High School would have lost money last year because of declining enrollment. But because the vast majority of its students come with low test scores and many students transfer in during the year, the new formula produced a gain for the school of nearly $300,000.

For Craigmont Principal Tisha Durrah, that meant restructuring the ninth grade academy by hiring an assistant principal and six additional teachers. Student-based budgeting allowed her to concentrate the school’s highest-performing teachers in the pivotal grade that often predicts a student’s likelihood of graduating.

Principal Tisha Durrah stands at the entrance of Craigmont High.
PHOTO CREDIT: Marta W. Aldrich

“Before student-based budgeting, the district would say this is how many teachers you’re allotted. So we had to work our plan and vision around what we were allotted,” she continued. This time, “we got to tell the district how we’re going to use this money.”

Algebra and English test scores increased this year, earning the school a higher growth score from the state.

“That’s huge gains and growth. And I believe that was a huge result of student-based budgeting,” she said.

She also adopted a curriculum designed to address students’ emotional needs in hopes of decreasing behavior problems and out-of-school suspensions, and gave stipends to counselors to help implement it.

Tweaks to Shelby County Schools’ formula for next year have not been finalized, Williams said. Superintendent Joris Ray plans to present next year’s proposed budget to school board members soon.