January 15, 2023 Letter

I hope you find time this weekend to reflect on the life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. Through a happy coincidence of timing, King Day weekend this year also marks the beginning of the reading of the Book of Exodus in Jewish synagogues, a story Dr. King gave new meaning during the civil rights era. His legacy is both an inspiration in terms of what he accomplished, and a challenge in terms of how further we must go to advance his vision. 

Adjusting The Funding Formula For High Needs Students

This week’s letter will be the third of four describing and critiquing the State’s education aid funding formula. The January 1 letter described the formula’s basic structure, and the January 8 letter described why its $11,050 per student “core instruction amount” of the current formula fails to fund adequately the basic cost per student for a child without special needs. In this week’s letter, I will describe why the current formula’s “student success factor,” which is designed to address the additional costs to educate high-need students, falls short of its goal.

A.       The “Weights” Developed By The 2007 Working Group

In the two years leading up to the passage of the current funding formula, the General Assembly engaged R.C. Wood, a nationally-known consultant and convened a blue-ribbon “Working Group” to research this issue. The panel produced a Report which identified five categories of higher-need students. For each category, the Working Group proposed that a “weight” be assigned to the basic cost per student to fund that student’s greater needs. The categories and weights were as follows:

Thus, for example, the Working Group recommended that a foundation school budget contain an extra 50% beyond the “core instruction amount” for each special education student given the additional resources needed in terms of teacher aides, professionals and in some cases out-of-district placements. Districts would budget an additional 50% above the core amount for each student who qualified for free lunch (i.e. most severe poverty), and an additional 25% for each student who, while in poverty, qualified for reduced price (but not free) lunch. For students who combined several of these higher needs at once, such as a special education student who also was an English language learner, the weights would be added, in this case +50% +20% = +70%.

B.       The Current Funding Formula’s “Student Success Factor”

The current funding formula collapsed its formula-based high needs adjustment to a single category, called the “student success factor” of +40%, which it adds for each student who qualifies for free or reduced lunch. This single adjustment falls short of the Working Group’s recommendation in several ways. It makes no adjustment for special education, career/technical education students or students learning the English language. It does not differentiate between free lunch (extreme poverty) and reduced lunch (poverty).

C.       English Language Learners And Extreme Poverty Students In The Urban Core

The current formula’s failure to add extra funding for English language learners is particularly mystifying, as it is obvious that if a district has two students in poverty, and first is English speaking while the second is not, there is no question that the cost to educate the second student will be higher than the cost for the first student. In justifying this feature of the formula, the Department of Education asserted that the difference was not significant, as the bulk of children learning English are concentrated in the urban core and also live in poverty, thus the “student success” factor’s greater weight would provide adequate funding for this group. 

In my opinion, there are several things wrong with the Department of Education’s assessment. First, the “student success” factor does not differentiate between poverty and extreme poverty, even though the cost to educate students in these groups was shown by research to be significantly different, and there is a greater concentration of extreme poverty in the urban core. Second the claimed link between children in poverty and those learning the English language is weaker than the Department contends. For example, in 2012, the distribution of free/reduced price lunch (FRPL), Hispanic and English as a second language among students was as follows:

D.       “Categorical Pools” Of Additional Funds

In recognition of this deficiency, the General Assembly in its 2021 budget created a certain number of additional “categorical pools” of funds outside the formula to distribute among school districts for students with additional needs as follows:

High cost special education:                          $4.5 million

Career and technical education:                    $4.5 million

English language learners:                             $5 million


While these categorical pools are a step in the right direction, they are grossly inadequate, when these amounts are distributed among more than 140,000 children in 36 traditional school districts plus charter schools.

E.       Conclusion

To conclude, the current funding formula fails to address adequately the additional needs of students in the urban core, particularly those in families of extreme poverty and those who are still learning the English language. To correct these failures, the funding formula should be reformed to include different weights for different levels of poverty, as well as an additional additive weight for students learning the English language.