Paul Hill Points Way Toward Colorado's New Digital-Friendly K-12 Funding System

As a nation and a state, we’re on the brink of a digital learning explosion. I’m talking about a system of education characterized by flexibility, freedom and personalization — one where online courses and opportunities are embraced wholeheartedly in a family or community context, or blended in various ways with traditional classrooms and school functions.

But we just can’t flip a digital learning switch, and solve all the ills of public education. One of the biggest obstacles to the important transformation is a dusty old system of school finance that delivers money to district administrative offices and allots it to schools through staffing formulas. Dr. Paul Hill, in his thoughtful new Fordham Institute issue brief titled School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era, notes:

This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to move money from concrete facilities, established programs, and entrenched staff roles to new uses like equipment, software, and remote instructional staff. Yet to encourage development and improvement of technology-based methods, we must find ways for public dollars to do just that—and to follow kids to online providers chosen by their parents, teachers, or themselves.

Will “disruptive innovation” overtake the existing K-12 education system, or will Colorado lawmakers make some serious changes to how it is funded first? As my Education Policy Center friends contemplate how to craft a school finance system for digital learning and the 21st century, they and others couldn’t find a better resource than Dr. Hill’s new piece.

Some of the brightest national lights on the topic are favorably impressed. Education Sector’s Bill Tucker agrees that something like “weighted student funding” is necessary, but not sufficient, to effect the needed change:

…a new system needs to go beyond “whole school” models. In other words, if digital learning “unbundles” school so that students can choose courses and learning experiences from multiple places, as in Florida and other states, then funding needs to be just as nimble.

Customize schooling… where have I heard that before? Meanwhile, widely-respected digital learning entrepreneur Tom Vander Ark has a lot of valuable insights to share about Hill’s paper, including something he and I definitely concur was an important point:

The second breakthrough proposal in this paper suggests scraping the complicated system of local levies and partial state matches for school construction. Instead, “Funds previously earmarked for facilities and maintenance could be included in the backpack.” I’d love to see school districts get out of the real estate development business. If a little tech and facilities funding showed up with enrollment revenue for courses, providers could lease appropriate facilities. This would lead to more school options, more facilities flexibility, and far more productive use of public space. This transition could be accompanied by the sale and lease of many school facilities that could raise billions in funding for operations and program development.

Who out there is willing to join us in questioning such major assumptions embedded in the system? We’re talking about the future here, and the future belongs to kids like me. I understand there are challenges to overhauling an education funding system to help it focus more productively on serving individual students’ needs, and that not everyone will come out a winner. But just using “that’s the way it’s always been” as the reason to resist change isn’t going to hold water, and in a sense is avoiding the inevitable.

Anyway, I’ve only scratched the surface, but trust me: My Education Policy Center friends are paying attention, and taking good notes. Helping Colorado become a leader in this area is an important focus. To make sure K-12 education is primarily about serving students’ needs, we need to do everything we can to make sure that money follows the student to their chosen learning opportunities. It’s working out all the other details that takes time.