School board association executive says new method will distract principals from primary mission

Strong performing charter schools in the Recovery School District (RSD) make a compelling case for even greater decentralization in Louisiana’s education system, according to the proponents of student based budgeting.

Last November, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) began studying the new budgetary concept at the behest of the state’s Streamlining Commission.  Under current policy, state money is allocated to each school district and the district officials determine how much money each school receives. But there is a better way to maximize resources and direct money into the classroom, Lisa Snell, the director of Education and Child Welfare at the California-based Reason Foundation, said.

“We’ve learned from the charter school movement that decentralization has its advantages,” Snell explained. “One of the problems we see at the federal, level and district level is that there are a lot of rules about how to spend money and principals are held accountable for student achievement. But the principals have very little input how resources are directed in specific instances. They should have more autonomy over how resources are aligned toward their school’s instructional goals.”

The idea behind student based budgeting (SBB) is for school dollars to be dispersed on a per-pupil basis and to follow individual students into schools where the principals determine how the money is best spent. Snell made the case for SBB last year before a BESE task force. She was joined by three other presenters from across the country who have successfully implemented the new budgetary method in their districts.

Matt Hill, an administrative officer for the Los Angeles Unified School District, told task force members that assigning financial resources directly to schools had allowed for each school to have greater flexibility to make specific decisions in spending, which in turn improved student performance. Jason Willis, a former budget director with the Oakland Unified School District, said some tasks are better suited to “economies of scale” at the central office, but most duties associated with “enhancements to learning” were better dealt with at the school level.

BESE has authorized a pilot program set to go into full effect next year that includes at least six different parishes: Jefferson, Sabine, Terrebonne, Assumption, Lafourche and Iberville. Officials with St. John the Baptist indicated earlier this year that they may not take part in the pilot after initially signing up, but the parish has not officially withdrawn, Penny Dastugue, the BESE president said. She anticipates the pilot program will yield useful information for school officials over the next several months.
“This is a voluntary way for districts to explore new concepts and new practices,” Dastugue said. “The idea here is to empower local school leaders and to shift the decision-making over to the local schools where there is a firm understanding of student needs.”

School districts that have embraced SBB throughout the country find that it translates into greater transparency, heightened flexibility and greater equity, Dastugue noted. She also said that the overall success of the charter school program suggests that SBB can be made to work in a larger scale.
“A one size fits all approach does not work,” she said. “We need to be student specific and let principals address the individual needs of their schools. In a way, we already have a successful for student based budgeting with our charter schools.”

Snell, the Reason education analyst, points out that SBB has produced encouraging results in other parts of the country in large school districts. The LA Unified district in Los Angeles, Calif. currently has 110 schools involved and will include all 900 of its schools next year, she said. Snell also cited programs in Boston, Mass. And Newark, N.J.

The outcome of this Saturday’s BESE school board elections could have a significant impact on Louisiana’s pilot program, Dastugue, the board president acknowledged.  Top officials with Louisiana School Boards Association (LSBA) and the Louisiana Association of Superintendents (LAS) have been critical of SBB. Both organizations are part of the Coalition for Public Education, which also includes several teachers unions.

Lloyd Dressel, the interim executive director of LSBA, expressed concern that SBB could distract principals from their primary responsibility. He also said the pilot program is much more “open-ended” than what has been set up in California.

“We have some misgivings,” Dressel said. “We think the spigot has been opened too wide and too much authority is being moved away from superintendents. We don’t have principals at each individual school with sufficient training to administer the books in way that would be necessary with this kind of budgeting. This can get too open-ended in our view. The principal’s chief job is academic performance and if he has take time away to handle budget questions this would lessen the time devoted to academic performance.”

Russell Armstrong of Baton Rouge, who is running for the open BESE seat in District 8 also sees a danger that SBB could become “too open ended,” but he does support the pilot program..

“We need to make sure our principals are trained to handle this new approach, so we do have to be careful about making this too widespread at the outset,” Armstrong said. “But I like the idea of allowing local officials to have more autonomy so they can improve outcomes for our students. The pilot program is very worthwhile and we should be open to new ideas. Part of our job is to make sure this is implemented in the right way.”

Snell, the Reason Foundation analyst, expects SBB to become more widespread over time in Louisiana and in other parts of the country.

“The central office that has control is always going to be resistant,” she said. “They do want to tell principals how to spend the money, and they do think they know best. But we’ve already seen some successful implementations that have become very empowering to principals, teachers and students. The idea is catching on.”

SBB can be viewed as an extension of charter school movement, Snell added. The concept has already moved beyond theory and into practice in the Recovery School District where local officials are delivering a quality education without centralized control, she said.

The Pelican Institute did try contacting several of the Coalition-backed candidates including Sharon Hewitt, Louella Givens and Lottie Beebe, but did not receive a response.

Kevin Mooney is an investigative reporter with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. He can be reached at and followed on Twitter.