Fixing Our Funding: Q&A with Mike Griffith
If anyone can navigate the complex and hazardous waters of education funding, it’s Mike Griffith.
As the senior school finance analyst for Education Commission of the States, he’s worked in the field of school finance policy for more than 19 years, and has focused his research on the condition of state budgets, the adequacy and equity of state finance formulas, and promising practices in funding programs for high-need students.
He’s an expert who’s quoted in such outlets as CNN, Education Week, NBC Nightly News, National Public Radio, and The New York Times.
We caught up with Mike to discuss Delaware’s outdated funding system, and some possible paths forward.
Q: How does Delaware’s system compare nationally?
A: Delaware uses a system that we’d call a position allocation or resource allocation system. Only about six states use that. Every state has their own unique spin on it, and while it has the basic structure of six other states, Delaware has some unique facets.
One of the interesting things is that most states distribute funds based on relative property wealth. They require property to be reassessed in a similar manner, and to be reassessed every so many years. But there is no requirement in Delaware for reassessment of property. And that makes it difficult to determine relative property wealth in these different districts in Delaware.
When you say this to other states, they are shocked. It’s a little thing, it’s a boring subject. But it’s a very basic, fundamental underpinning of school funding. Also, in Delaware there’s this idea of a position allocation system that is a top-down system, where the states says, “we will determine how many teachers, how many principals, how many nurses, et cetera, and we will ensure that those jobs are filled.” What other states do is more distributing of funds to the districts, and letting them figure out how many positions they need.
Q: How does a funding system like Delaware’s inhibit student progress and equity?
A: It’s hard to say that a funding system alone can help or inhibit student outcomes. But equity is one where, if you go back and reassess property values to determine relative wealth, you can go a long way toward balancing the formula to be more equitable for at-risk students.
The big thing in Delaware is that the current system doesn’t allow for flexibility in the new areas where education is now being taken. Digital learning, for instance, is one of the biggest growth areas in education, as is dual and concurrent enrollment. In a more flexible system, you can say we’re going to use these funds to pay for teachers and for these enrollment opportunities for our students. Today we see more and more kids splitting time between virtual learning environments and brick-and-mortar school environments. Your system is built strictly on that brick-and-mortar idea. It’s not flexible for modern learning.
Q: How have other states improved their systems? What are the benefits/results?
A: Other states have absolutely improved their systems. You see states like Rhode Island that have adopted a new system based on attempting to create greater equity between poor and wealthy districts. They moved away from drivers of funding like seat time to more flexible modes like virtual learning, and dual enrollment.
California adopted one that was aimed at taking away as much of the complexity as much as we can—and, by the way, Delaware’s is very complex. California made theirs simple and easy to understand, and based on student need. Delaware does not provide extra funding for at-risk kids, which is something that a lot of states do. Forty-three states have some form of at-risk funding they provide, and all 50 provide extra for special education, while 46 have it for English learners. The idea is these high-need kids are more and more the focus for school funding. So we’re seeing states move to that. And then creating flexibility for the services they need, and for the general population kids.
Q: What would you recommend Delaware do?
A: I would say sit down and create a formula that has flexibility, has equity, and is adequate enough that it can allow students to reach their educational goals. It’s important to talk to the people who lead your state, but if it is made without input from the education community, then it’s going to fail. I think the important thing is, come up with these goals, then work with districts and education staff and stakeholders and come up with what the full system would look like, and how to get there. They’ve done it in Rhode Island, California, and now Idaho and Montana are looking at it—all with a lot of public input. The trick is, having that goal of equity, adequacy to meet the needs of kids, and flexible enough to keep in mind these new ways of doing education. It’s probably also going to be a situation where districts are held harmless for the first few years.
Q: What should the average Delawarean know about how their schools are funded?
A: It’s one of these things where there’s over half a trillion dollars spent per year on public education, and very few people know about or think about how that money gets down to schools. It can get so complex that people just tune out—I mean I’ve seen the switch go off when I’m talking to people. [Laughs.]
There needs to be a simple way to tell people why having a system like Delaware’s is not advantageous to kids in your schools. One way is you can tell them what’s being offered in other high schools in other states that we don’t have in Delaware. There are some states where high school students can take dual and concurrent enrollment and come out of high school with a free associate degree. And this is not a small group of elite students—but it’s open to every student. The real shocker is when people think about Utah, which has pushed for dual and concurrent enrollment and shaped their system around it, huge push for kids coming out with college credits and associates.
You say, “Look, it’s hard to get into the details, but our system is not flexible enough.” With an improved formula, your school will have greater flexibility to offer more after-school and summer school courses, and we can do so much more for our at-risk kids.