More than a month after Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II unveiled a strategic plan aimed at making the district more equitable, trustees still have unanswered questions about how to pay for it and concerns about whether parents and community members understand some of the changes that would occur.
Chief among the changes prompting some of those questions is House’s call to centralize funding for certain positions and programs, a shift from the district’s decentralized system that empowers school principals to spend their budgets as they see fit.
Under the plan, the district would centrally fund such jobs as assistant principals, nurses and fine arts teachers, in an effort to ensure all campuses staff those positions, which currently is not the case. Additionally, the district would centrally fund programs such as Advanced Placement, special education supports and athletics.
In interviews and during budget workshops this month, trustees largely have agreed that all campuses should have those staffers and programs but several say they want more information about how the changes will affect principals’ autonomy.
They also want to know how the district will pay for the initiative, which is projected to cost $255 million to implement in the first year of the five-year plan.
The district plans to use federal COVID-19 relief money and general budget funds to pay for the first year. Funding it in the other years, however, has not yet been discussed in great detail.
“This isn’t the first time that this type of change has been proposed, right? What I would like to see as a trustee is to see there is transparency around the process, that there is community understanding and buy-in,” said Trustee Judith Cruz, currently serving as board president, “and ultimately that there is alignment to the board’s vision and goals.”
Most recently, former Superintendent Richard Carranza proposed centralizing various staffing and budget decisions, but the plan fizzled out after he left the school system in 2018, less than two years into his tenure. His successor, interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, said the district needed more outreach before changing its funding model.
The district was expected to create a committee to study resource allocation. It is not clear if it ever did.
Trustee Dani Hernandez asked House during a workshop Thursday if that group ever had been formed and produced any reports. House said he was not aware of any.
“I feel like it’s a lot more of a plan than it previously was,” Hernandez said after last week’s presentation. “I still have a lot of questions about it.”
Administrators have said the change will not be a complete abandonment of the district’s decentralized operations but more of a hybrid model in which principals still will make some budgeting decisions.
Duncan Klussmann, former superintendent of Spring Branch ISD, said the level of autonomy given to principals that often is associated with HISD could lead to different programming available to students across the district without “guardrails.”
A 2019 report by the Texas Legislative Budget Board called for structural changes across the district after finding the decentralized model had delivered inconsistent resources to students and poor monitoring of spending.
“I think there is a balance that organizations are always looking to,” Klussmann said, “to try to figure out that right balance between campus autonomy and centralization.”
See here and here for the background. The story goes on to quote an expert who has some reservations about the plan and the speed with which it is moving forward. She and a colleague turned those concerns into this op-ed piece calling to slow things down.
Houston’s school board needs to take the time the city deserves to see if consolidating budget power back to the top is the right way to go. As such, we respectfully call for the board to stand up for the community and ensure a full public vetting process. It’s what such a monumental decision warrants before a well-established budget strategy with a lot of wins is ditched in the blink of an eye.
Those wins include the fact that the current model, known as weighted student funding, advances equity. Under the highly transparent model, the district gives schools more dollars for students with higher needs. Peer-reviewed research proves it: in fiscal year 2019, HISD spent $384 per student more on schools attended by the average low-income student than schools attended by other students. The weighted student funding strategy brought student achievement gains that won HISD the coveted Broad Prize for Urban Education. (The link between implementation and positive student test scores is documented in our research .) And while the district today clearly has ample room to improve, in a district like HISD with very limited dollars, there’s no wiggle room to get it wrong. It is these successes that led the school board to make weighted student funding a cornerstone of district strategy.
The Houston superintendent’s move goes against the tide of dozens of mega-districts that have adopted WSF in recent years — from Atlanta and Denver to Chicago and New York, Memphis-Shelby County and Metro Nashville — each posting equity gains as a result. Most recently, District of Columbia Public Schools approved weighted student funding, swayed by the evidence backing it. And in 2015, the bipartisan federal Every Student Succeeds Act included a pilot program enabling districts to expand their weighted student formulas to include federal funds as well.
We understand that the natural state of many districts is to centralize power over finances. But HISD’s board has long resisted that pressure, choosing instead to run a system that gives principals latitude in how best to staff their schools to meet differing student needs.
The district need not jettison weighted student funding to mandate that all schools apply an effective reading curriculum or offer fine arts — things that leadership has called for. The district can absolutely require all schools to offer certain programs or services under weighted student funding; principals simply keep the leeway to decide how best to deliver those offerings at their school. It’s the district’s responsibility to then hold principals accountable for outcomes.
So, a centralized funding model does not win more money for schools. It does, however, incur losses. Principals — who know their students and the strengths of their unique mix of staff — lose their flexibility to decide how to tailor their resources to meet the needs of their diverse students. And a proven track record of equity hangs in the balance.
In working with scores of districts through our national school finance research center, we can confidently say that Houston’s rush to change is unprecedented. We have never seen a big-city district so dramatically overhaul its finance model without at least two years of planning. And while the threat of a state takeover continues to hang over HISD, there is no evidence that the Texas Education Agency is demanding this rapid-fire shift.
As I said before, I generally support the goals of Superintendent House’s vision. I’m fine with taking all the time needed to study it and make sure that we’re not disrupting things that are working well or implementing things that don’t have empirical backing yet. I’m out of my depth beyond that, so that’s all the more reason why I’d say taking more time on this is worthwhile.