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Let's Not Miss the Opportunity In Weighted Student Funding Pilot

This year, the federal government is offering school districts the opportunity to change the way they leverage federal dollars to support students.

The weighted student funding pilot, part of the Every Student Succeeds Act, gives as many as 50 school districts more flexibility and ultimately more autonomy in how they serve disadvantaged students. The hope is that focusing funding on individual student needs and shifting spending decisions to those closest to the students can improve student achievement.

So why have only five school districts signed up for the pilot so far?

Concern about the risks rather than the rewards seem to have driven the language of the law, its design and rollout and recent discussion from the sidelines. Ironically, the pilot is in danger of drowning in federal requirements designed to mitigate risks associated with relaxing federal rules.

[Read More: Piloting a New Way to Fund Schools]

Some 25 larger districts, including those in Denver and Boston, are already using weighted student formulas for spending their state and local dollars. They usually leave federal funds out of the formulas because of burdensome regulations and reporting requirements.

But the new federal pilot permits the U.S. Education Department to ease some rules so that pilot districts can add key federal dollars to the mix to create a single funding formula stream for their schools.

Unfortunately, that opportunity seems to have been buried under a heap of federal red tape.

In crafting the initiative, lawmakers specified that pilot districts agree to a long list of assurances that they wouldn’t use their flexibility to turn their backs on the students that the federal funds are designed to help.  The application then requires a slew of onerous financial data submissions for not only federal allocations, but also state and local expenditures—requirements that almost no district could meet.

The net result? Many of the potential applicants with a track record of working toward greater fiscal equity got spooked. Of the 25 school districts already using weighted formulas for state and local spending, just one applied for the pilot. A whopping five of the country’s 13,600 districts applied. And that’s too bad.

The regulatory risk aversion misses the point that this is a pilot project, where the goal should be to learn how to make federal funding do more for students—not defend existing allocation rules. It’s easy to think that if we just manage to get the dollars to the right building (the one with the highest concentration of poor students) our job is done. But time and again research tells us that is not enough to improve student outcomes.

A pilot is supposed to be a small-scale, controlled forum for learning better ways to do things. It’s about balancing reasonable risks with potential rewards. Are there risks in letting districts flow federal dollars into their weighted student funding formulas? Yes. It’s possible a district might wind up spending less on some high-needs students.

But the pilot offers a shot at increasing the effectiveness of federal programs like Title I. Despite an annual budget of $15 billion, study after study has shown the 53-year-old cornerstone of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty is not having the intended effect of improving impoverished  students’ outcomes.

What if a pilot district came up with a groundbreaking way to deploy federal Title I dollars to radically improve outcomes for some of our most vulnerable students? That’s an opportunity to seize, not shrink from. The pilots last only three years. If they haven't improved things in that time, districts return to following existing federal rules. That's a low-risk proposition.

Federal policymakers need to focus on ends rather than means: making student outcomes the North Star.  And school districts need to see beyond the program's regulatory thicket to its potential to improve achievement for our most vulnerable students. The next round of pilot applications is due July 15.

[Read More: How Should States Weight Funding for Disadvantaged Students?]

FutureEd Senior Fellow Marguerite Roza is the director of the Edunomics Lab and Research Professor at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy.