Incentivize Actual Learning
School dollars should follow success, not just enrollment.

Fourth-grade classroom in Gretna, La.


The decision of the Louisiana supreme court to strike down as unconstitutional the funding mechanism of the state’s school-voucher program is a major blow to school-choice supporters, but the biggest problem they face is not the courts. It’s a funding system that pays schools for failure.

The court’s decision rested on the voucher program’s diversion of funds that are supposed to be allotted to public schools on a per-pupil basis. It ruled that while the voucher program itself is legal, the funds for it cannot come from that specific allotment, which is earmarked for public schools only. The state can continue the voucher program if it finds the money elsewhere in the state budget.

Louisiana, like most states, funds schools according to enrollment. Federal grants for schools with high-needs populations supplement state funding on the same basis: the more students, the more funding.

Despite the widely reported recent progress made by schools in the Louisiana Recovery School District, which comprises most public schools in New Orleans, the policy has utterly failed. Allocations per pupil, adjusted for inflation, have quadrupled over the past 50 years, but outcomes haven’t improved: Scores are flat, and the achievement gaps between racial and economic groups persist. Today, only about a quarter of Louisiana’s fourth-graders are proficient in math, reading, writing, or science, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Instead of being paid for putting warm bodies in seats, schools should be rewarded for student learning. Dollars should follow success.

In Louisiana, per-pupil funding is mandated by the state constitution, which requires amounts to be set according to a formula approved by the legislature. The amounts vary by parish and city school district, depending on local tax revenues, but are allocated per student.

Under this model, the worst schools and the most effective schools in the state receive the same dollar amount per student. Even worse, many state and federal grants send supplemental dollars to the lowest-performing schools. If the schools and students succeed, the funding dries up.

Arizona’s legislature is considering a commonsense change to incentivize success: Pay schools to perform well. The Arizona plan would give school districts “per pupil achievement payments” that reward high scores on the state’s A-F report card. The plan requires that schools be given flexibility in deciding how to spend the state’s allotments, to address specific student needs instead of just paying teachers more under union contracts.

At the same time, measures are needed to hold principals accountable for outcomes. When California’s chronically underperforming Oakland Unified School District implemented principal-autonomy and principal-accountability measures to great success over the past decade, the gap between Oakland’s high-poverty, low-performing schools and its wealthy, successful schools closed dramatically, and student test scores across all race and income categories jumped. It turned out that principals, when given autonomy and held accountable, knew a lot better than did central-office bureaucrats how to spend dollars most effectively.

But changes to improve schools’ environments for learning should go further still. Louisiana should start rewarding schools with more funds when their students demonstrate measurable progress. Loosening seat-time requirements for students would allow them to learn at their own pace, and would allow teachers to target interventions to maximize their effectiveness.

Powerful new instructional models, such as blended learning — which personalizes student learning by allowing targeted remediation and acceleration — are challenging the notion that all students learn best when they are taught the same thing in the same way at the same time. Schools that practice blended learning teach toward subject mastery — students can learn at their own pace, and teachers using data to identify what students know and what they don’t know can respond accordingly.

The nation’s top blended-learning schools, such as those in California’s Rocketship Education and Arizona’s Carpe Diem programs, are now among the highest-performing schools in their home states. These schools are establishing new blended-learning campuses in Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Nashville, and Washington, D.C. This model, which specializes in shrinking the achievement gaps affecting poor and minority students, has been adopted by New Orleans’s FirstLine Schools and could be extremely effective across Louisiana.

Formulas for public-school funding fail to reward schools for successfully tailoring learning to every student’s needs. If students can master a year of math in six months with targeted interventions and extra resources, education dollars should follow those students when they are ready to advance. With 74 percent of Louisiana’s fourth-graders unable to achieve basic proficiency in reading, a funding scheme that rewarded a school that improved reading proficiency would incentivize and push adoption of best practices.

The voucher decision, based on a misguided devotion to funding equity, should force school-choice supporters to rethink how all schools are funded. If schools are paid to perform, even private schools will be eligible for vouchers if they demonstrate excellence.

Just as shoppers would not spend their money at a grocery store with the worst selection and highest prices, taxpayers should expect their education dollars to be spent in ways that reward quality and excellence. School budgets should promote actual learning.

— Sean Kennedy and Don Soifer are education analysts with the Lexington Institute, a nonpartisan public-policy think tank in Arlington, Va.