The Utah Legislature uses about 60 separate funding streams to provide more than $5 billion per year to Utah’s 41 school districts and 135 charter schools. Roughly three-quarters of that money has virtually no strings attached. The school board in Washington County can use that money to meet its students’ needs. The Alpine school board can and does use its share of that money quite differently, because its students and teachers and staff have different needs.
With that last quarter (just over $1 billion), the Legislature restricts how school leaders may spend those dollars. If you want your share of paraeducator funding, you need to follow R277-324 and UCA 53F-2-411. If you want your share of the funding for accelerated students, you have to follow R277-707 and UCA 53F-2-408. And so on.
One way to think about these restrictions is to compare that funding to a piano. With unrestricted funding, school boards and administrators can play whatever music they want. If their students need The Killers, they can play that. If their students need Beethoven, they can play that. With restricted funds, however, school boards and administrators can play only one tune. The students in a given district may not respond to that tune, but that is the tune.
These restrictions do not alter a school’s obligation to meet the needs of its students. Those obligations exist in state and federal statutes, independent of how schools pay to meet those needs. The restrictions only limit how schools can meet their students’ needs.
Utah’s restrictions are hardly unique. The most recent survey of states’ education budgets (2013) shows that the number of restricted “programs” in state education budgets ranged from one (Florida and Montana) to 64 (Iowa). Remember, Utah has 60! Legislators restrict funding either because they believe this regulatory structure will get more money to the students who need it, and/or because they believe that legislators are better consumers of the research on what will improve outcomes in public education.
The problem is, there is little reason to believe either of those assumptions. As researchers Thomas Timar and Marguerite Roza write, “No consistent evidence proves such programs do, indeed, have their intended effects.” In other words, the restrictions legislatures across the country place on how schools can use state education funds do not change the outcomes of the students they hope to target.
Even more troubling, the restrictions placed on these streams of funding create enormous burdens on local and state school leaders. For each program, school administrators and principals have to complete reports describing how they used the funds. Then the State Board of Education has to audit and monitor each of those streams of funding to make sure the schools used them according to the restrictions.
To change the analogy, school leaders at the state and local level spend oodles of time worrying about how much sugar went into a cupcake, rather than whether the cupcake actually tastes good. If these restrictions don’t actually move the academic needle, the restrictions are well-intended, burdensome and, it appears, unsuccessful.
So, what should Utah’s legislators do? Instead of using 60 separate programs with scores of restrictions, why not narrow the field of restricted funding programs to those where evidence suggests they can have the most impact on student learning outcomes?
It seems more reasonable to let local school boards, school administrators and teachers who have daily interaction with our children, and their students, decide what tune to play, what kind of cupcake to make. Our trusted local boards are most likely to know the learning needs of their students better than our good friends on Capitol Hill.
Let’s lower bureaucratic burdens where possible and move more of our limited education resources to where they can have an enduring impact on the lives and learning experiences of Utah’s children.
Chris Fawson researches the economics of education at Utah State University. M. Royce Van Tassell is executive director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools.