Baltimore is about to make a big change when it comes to funding high-poverty schools

Over 20 percent of Baltimore’s children live in poverty.

Kindergarten students at The East Baltimore Community School are pictured playing in the playground outside their classrooms which is currently housed in a community center down the street from the rest of the school. (CREDIT: Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Kindergarten students at The East Baltimore Community School are pictured playing in the playground outside their classrooms which is currently housed in a community center down the street from the rest of the school. (CREDIT: Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

On Tuesday evening, the Baltimore City school board voted to significantly change how it funds its schools. Instead of allocating the city school budget based on how a school’s standardized test scores compare to its peers, the city will now mainly focus on student poverty levels in each school instead.

Over 20 percent of Baltimore’s children live in poverty, and nearly 90 percent of schoolchildren qualify for free/reduced price lunches.

“We are acknowledging that, given what some kids are exposed to, they have additional needs and that actually costs more,” Cheryl Casciani, the chair of the school board said, according to the Baltimore Sun.

The current funding model, adopted in 2008 and called “fair student funding,” was supposed to be transformational. The idea behind that model was a change from the city’s central administration making funding allocations within each school — how many teachers to hire, for example — and allowing principals to make those decisions. But how much money the principals had to work with was tied to how well students did on standardized tests. Schools whose students excelled and schools whose students were underperforming received additional money, which could provide a perverse incentive to underperform in pursuit of higher funding levels.

In the new model, principals will still be making funding decisions for their schools, but instead of standardized test results dictating how much they have to work with, it will be the poverty levels of the students the school serves.

This means more money for high-poverty schools — though the formula caps per-pupil gains at 5 percent. Per-pupil losses would be capped at 2 percent, but those losses are unlikely to happen after education advocates spoke out and “the board pledged they would find a way for no schools to take a funding hit next year due solely to the formula revisions,” according to the Baltimore Sun.

The model of allowing principals to direct funding has been adopted by about 30 of the largest school districts in the country, and about a third of those weight school funding using poverty.

Poverty levels in Baltimore elementary schools can be wildly divergent. For example, only 27 percent of students at Roland Park Elementary qualify for a free/reduced price lunch, but 94 percent of the student body at Alexander Hamilton Elementary does. The district average is 74 percent.

The extra funding for schools with high-poverty student bodies will be able to go toward assets that could help students facing the acute stress of poverty: school counselors and extra tutoring, for example.

“Students from low-income backgrounds come to school with greater needs than their more affluent counterparts,” Catherine Brown, vice president of education policy at the Center for American Progress, told ThinkProgress in an emailed statement. “From lack of high-quality child care and preschool, stable housing, adequate nutrition, exposure to books and language, and even prenatal care, these kids need more than their more privileged peers. Weighted student funding formulas that provide more resources for kids living in poverty are an exciting advancement in the fight for resource equity.”

Baltimore’s schools are chronically underfunded — most estimates put the budget shortfall in the range of $290 million per year. In this fiscal year, for example, the school system faces a structural budget gap of over $100 million, which it closed through “cost-cutting and provision of additional resources from the city and state,” according to the school’s website.

MARYLAND SCHOOL FUNDING AFTER LOCAL, STATE, AND FEDERAL SOURCES ARE TAKEN INTO ACCOUNT. (CREDIT: URBAN INSTITUTE)
MARYLAND SCHOOL FUNDING AFTER LOCAL, STATE, AND FEDERAL SOURCES ARE TAKEN INTO ACCOUNT. (CREDIT: URBAN INSTITUTE)

Across Maryland, local districts spend over $1,000 more per student on students from wealthier families than on students from low-income families, according to the Urban Institute. State funding attempts to even that disparity out, and Maryland state education funding does wipe out the local funding disparity. A smaller percentage of federal funding improves the disparity enough to put Marlyand as a whole on the slightly progressive side of the ledger.

Funding levels are certainly a huge part of the problem. But there are deeper, systemic issues that prevent all students from receiving a quality education. Economic segregation caused by bad housing policy and racism is central to the dilemma facing school administrators.

For example, research by Heather Schwartz from the RAND Corporation showed that in Maryland’s Montgomery County, kids from low-income families in majority segregated schools with more money did not do as well as kids from low-income families in less economically-segregated schools.