A controversial shift in how New Orleans charter schools are funded appears headed for approval, a step aimed at improving services for students with special needs after years of complaints that disabled pupils were getting short shrift.
The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education still needs to OK the change next week. But a new formula won the approval Wednesday of a task force created by the state Legislature to draw up a more equitable funding scheme, passing by a vote of 10-1 with one abstention. And both superintendents who oversee schools in New Orleans are backing it.
The new formula would allocate extra dollars to students with special needs based on the intensity of the services required.
The measure has been controversial because a handful of charters, including the highly ranked magnet schools that enroll relatively few special-needs students, stand to lose out as a result, although policy makers have stipulated that no school will lose more than 2 percent of its funding in a given year. Kathy Riedlinger, CEO of the selective Lusher Charter School, was the only task force member to vote against the plan.
Advocates for the new approach argue that many of the city’s open-enrollment schools aren’t getting the money they need to provide adequate services to students with disabilities and those learning English for the first time.
In a compromise move, officials have set aside some extra money in the formula for students designated as “gifted and talented.” The same schools that stand to lose funding because of the added special-needs allocation may benefit from the extra dollars for gifted students, although they would not get as much per student as they did under a formula that applied to certain schools this year.
Patrick Dobard, head of the state-run Recovery School District, and Henderson Lewis Jr., superintendent for the Orleans Parish School Board, released a joint statement saying the new approach “equitably supports schools as they serve the varying needs of all of their students and at the same time does not drop school budgets off a funding cliff.”
A whole swath of local advocacy groups voiced support for the new formula as well, including the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, the Urban League, the Orleans Public Education Network and Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools.
The latest shift in how schools are funded is part of a long-running debate over how to best serve students with disabilities and structure a uniquely decentralized school system.
In a traditional school district, state funding is controlled by a central office. Districts get a certain amount of extra funding for special needs on a per-pupil basis, but if they feel those extra dollars won’t cover the services required, they have the leeway to shift dollars that were technically earmarked for the rest of the district’s students.
In other words, a district might get $7,000 to educate a typical student and $8,000 for a disabled one but end up spending only $4,000 on the typical student and $12,000 on the special-needs pupil.
In New Orleans, nearly every school is an independent charter, and most funding flows directly to the schools. So a charter with a relatively high proportion of disabled students doesn’t have as many typical students to skim from in order to provide special services.
The new formula is an attempt to more accurately predict how much a student with a certain need will actually cost, so it can be included in the per-pupil allocation in the first place.
There are five tiers that special-needs students fall into based on their specific disability and the extra minutes of instruction they require in a given week. The extra dollars assigned to them would range from $1,499 to $22,486. The RSD moved to a nearly identical tiered formula a few years ago.
In contrast, the formula used by schools under the Orleans Parish School Board this year, including all of the city’s magnet schools, doled out a flat $3,236 for any special-needs student.
Critics of that approach say it would make sense only if the costs associated with special-needs students were evenly distributed throughout the city’s schools.
A letter to the state board of education from the various groups backing the new formula pointed out that some schools “serve a population where one out of every four children has a disability,” while others “serve a population where only one in 25 has any special needs, often with less intensive service requirements.”