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Student-Based Budgeting: Part of Colorado K-12 Future that Can Work

Many years ago, someone famously said: “I have seen the future, and it works.” Ironically, Lincoln Steffens said that about the Soviet Union, and he ended up being grossly incorrect.

What I see included in the future of Colorado K-12 education is considerably more modest and considerably less likely to backfire. When it comes to positive and promising development in Colorado K-12 education, I don’t need to be quite so brash — nor expect to be just plain wrong — as Mr. Steffens was.

I’m talking about student-based budgeting, which directs money to schools based on the needs of individual students attending there rather than on (often secretly) negotiated staffing formulas. As students exercise their choices within our K-12 public education system, the dollars as much as possible should be portable along with them. This move in turn puts more autonomy at the local school level, where decisions can better be made to benefit students.

No one is on top of the issue of student-based budgeting quite like the Reason Foundation, which just last week released their latest version of “Weighted Student Formula in the States.” In Colorado, as in many other states, the push for fair and transparent portable student funding comes at the local level.

This year, three of our 10 largest school districts made the list of 17 districts nationally profiled and rated for their progress in implementing weighted student funding — with one more (Adams 12 Five Star Schools) featured as a site for school funding portability expansion (percentage of principal budget autonomy in parentheses):

  • Denver Public Schools (44.3%)
  • Douglas County School District (44.5%)
  • Poudre School District – Fort Collins (40.3%)

On this point, one Colorado district may surpass them all. I’m talking about the innovative Falcon 49 school district, where they have undertaken a major effort to attach funds to students based on their enrollment choices and to shift substantial budget control down to the site level. Falcon has realized significant cost savings at the restructured central office and has taken on the authorizer role for a diversity of programs — causing their enrollment numbers to soar.

What I foresee is a brighter future: a nimbler and more responsive K-12 system, focused more on student needs able to deliver more specialized high-quality instruction as families choose. More districts following Colorado’s student-based budgeting leaders is a critical part of making the vision come true.

Whatever else you think, at least this future has a chance to work.