As Arlene Ackerman takes over the leadership of the Philadelphia School District this month, she is promising a fresh look at how the central administration allocates money to schools.

The new CEO has announced her intention to implement a policy called "weighted student funding," which could redirect resources to high-poverty areas and bring more citizen participation to the budget process. But it is going to be difficult to get it right.

The funding system, which she pioneered in three other districts, is aimed at addressing "system inequities," Ackerman told the School Reform Commission. She said that among her initial impressions of Philadelphia was a community concerned about unfair resource distribution and "with high hopes for change."

The only way to bring all students to standards and close the racial and ethnic achievement gap, she said, is "to make sure that we allocate all of our resources . . . in a fair and equitable way."

She cautioned: "Equitable doesn't mean equal. Some students need more than others, some schools need more than others."

Indeed, on her first official day, Ackerman made it a point to travel to two schools in different neighborhoods. At one, Overbrook High, she found exposed wires, dingy bathrooms and students who lack usable athletic fields. The other, Fox Chase Elementary, was spiffy and well-equipped.

But Ackerman is likely to tread into highly charged waters as she attempts to abandon longstanding budgeting practices.

The process is especially likely to stir controversy, as Ackerman knows, if it pits schools against each other for scarce dollars in a "robbing Peter to pay Paul" scenario.

The SRC just approved a budget that still has a shortfall of $5.9 million. Some education advocates worry that a focus on internal resource distribution will sap energy from the campaign to secure more resources for the district as a whole.

However, Ackerman is right to put a spotlight on equity. As she pointed out, it will be nearly impossible for all students to reach high level of achievement if the district doesn't think more strategically about where it puts its resources.

Weighted student funding discards a model in which teachers, administrators, and other resources are allocated to schools almost entirely based on their enrollment, replacing it with one that assigns per-pupil amounts that vary based on student needs.

Over the years, the "staff-based" funding system has perpetuated inequities. Better-paid and often more expert teachers gravitate to schools with fewer needy students, but the process offers no compensation to schools left with a largely inexperienced, lower-paid staff. On top of that, savvy principals and well-organized parent groups are often able to accumulate extras by pressuring the central office.

"We already spend more at certain schools with no rationale why we're doing it," Ackerman said. "The process is not transparent."

Her plan is to have a yearlong, intensive process in which parents, teachers, principals, and community members decide what student characteristics deserve extra resources - such as poverty or learning English - and how much weight to give each. That exercise itself could provide the opportunity for an overdue community-wide conversation about educational priorities.

Once a new distribution plan is in place, Ackerman would give schools increased freedom to decide how to spend their money.

"The key idea is that similar kids are funded similarly," said Joseph Olchefske, the former superintendent in Seattle and now a national consultant on school budgets. "If part of your philosophy is that resources follow the kids based on need, then you put more resources where the need is higher."

In addition, he said, "it's far more than budget reform; it's a way of organizing the district and thinking about decision-making. It raises . . . issues that need lots of discussion."

There are indeed some tough issues. For instance, do resources get pulled out of better-off schools, even though they are far from adequately funded? Do schools losing enrollment get protection, or should the money follow the students out those doors?

The district will also have to decide if it should move away from a budgeting system that treats teacher salaries as if all teachers earn the average rate - and start looking at how schools vary greatly in how much their teachers actually earn.

Ackerman seems determined to sort through all this.

Dale Mezzacappa is a former Inquirer reporter and contributing editor at the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, which explored these issues in its Summer 2008 edition. Contact her at dalemezz@comcast.net

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