Student-based budgeting could incentivize Louisiana schools to make better use of their dollars

BATON ROUGE, La. – On Wednesday, Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education examined the prospect of assigning tax dollars to schools on an openly defined, per-student basis. Advocates of “student-based budgeting” assert the opportunity for “more transparent, competitive, and outcome-based school funding system than the current status quo.” Three out-of-state experts travelled to the capital to testify to its success with their districts.

The state’s Streamlining Commission directed BESE to pursue SBB, and the consequent task force, comprised of 17 committee members, seeks to “identify and study statutory and policy obstacles to the implementation of [SBB] and develop appropriate solutions.” BESE is set to make a recommendation to the state legislature before the next session, and approximately 70 individuals joined the task force for the public hearing, which included three presentations, public comments, and questioning from BESE members.

The basic idea, according to Lisa Snell of the Reason Foundation, is that “dollars rather than staffing positions follow students into schools.”

“All stakeholders are better able to see and understand how resources are allocated and spent in each school.” Particularly in tight financial times, “it demonstrates how much money is spent at the school-level on the student and how much is spent by the central office.”

Reason is a California-based non-profit organization advancing “free minds and free markets” – in this instance, “an education market place that supports students not institutions.” Snell flew in with and assisted the three speakers, and she believes a switch to SBB would be one tool to shift school accountability towards students and parents.

“Under [SBB], if a student leaves, the funding also leaves. So it is a way to incentivize more positive education outcomes for families.” (Click below to hear Lisa Snell’s statement to the BESE task force – four minutes.)


The three presenters shared favorable experiences from school districts in Los Angeles and Oakland, California, and New York City, and interacted with task force members for approximately 40 minutes. For example, Matt Hill, an administrative officer for the Los Angeles Unified School District, asserted that assigning financial resources directly to schools had allowed them “flexibility to make individualized spending decisions that improve student outcomes.”

Jason Willis, former budget director with the Oakland Unified School District, noted that some tasks benefit from “economies of scale” at the central office, but most duties associated with “enhancements to learning” were better dealt with at the school level. As an example where local discretion would appear to trump district board decisions, he raised the decision between the hiring of a counselor or a bilingual teacher. Presumably the on-site officials would be better positioned to make such a judgment. (The slides of all three presentations are available here.)

The most likely opponent of the SBB appears to be the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents. However, Donald Songy, associate executive director of the association and member of the task force, says they are still in “the process of developing a position of paper.”

“We were waiting to get more information… One of the big concerns was that Louisiana consists of a lot of school districts – some very large, some small and rural.” Large urban districts have adopted SBB, “and that model doesn’t fit most of the districts in Louisiana.”

“So our big concern is [whether] all the districts will be required to follow the same model. We feel like there are some good points to [SBB], but it would work best if the district could fashion their own program.”

David Clayton, superintendent of the Jefferson Davis Parish School board was in attendance, and found it “very informative.” He did, however, question the presenters on how he could get more money into the schools, as opposed to in the district board. His board already covers many of the general expenses one would normally associate with schools, such as utilities.

“Everybody wants to put more money into classrooms,” he says. “We feel like we’re squeezing blood out of a turnip trying to get higher… because most of us operate in a very lean fashion anyway.”

Penny Dastugue, the committee chair and a BESE board member, believes task force members are gradually getting over their “fear of change” and coming on board with the SBB idea. She anticipates the next meeting will bring in school principals, and the mostly likely outcome of this process, in her view, is a pilot application in 2011.

Fergus Hodgson is the capitol bureau reporter with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. He can be contacted at, and one can follow him on twitter.