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Weighted Student Formula -- Weighing The Pluses and Minuses

(c) Copyright 2004, Kenneth R. Conklin, Ph.D. All rights reserved

Note: A slightly earlier version of this article was published in Hawaii Reporter on-line newspaper on Monday, April 12, 2004 at


The Weighted Student Formula raises many profound questions. There are fundamental philosophical, social, political, and economic issues to be considered. These issues may not be practical, but they can help us think more clearly about the assumptions we make in deciding whether to support the concept of WSF and what variables should be included in the algebra of such a formula.

Aloha dear readers. This essay is undocumented; it does not deal with Hawaiian sovereignty (except very tangentially); and it draws no conclusions. The purpose of this essay is to raise questions for further thought. I do not have answers and there is no political agenda. In this essay I am "thinking out loud" and sharing both my confusion and my clarity, hoping that others will think and share their conclusions going forward.

Two concepts behind the weighted student formula (WSF) are of interest in this essay: (1) Government money to pay for government education for each child should be attached to that child and should follow him to whatever public school he attends; (2) The amount of government money attached to a child should be different for different categories of children, depending on their special needs.

Both aspects of WSF are intended to make use of economic principles such as the law of supply and demand, the unseen hand that ensures individual pursuit of self-interest will fortuitously produce the greatest good for the greatest number. Both aspects of WSF are intended to empower individual families to "vote with their feet" and to encourage competition among schools that will make the schools more efficient in producing the services people actually want at a cost society can afford.

Attaching government money to each child and allowing him to spend that money at the school of his choice raises the question whether that school should be required to be a government school. Consider the types of schools available. There are public schools theoretically operating under a uniform set of standards and curriculum; there are (semi) public schools known as charter schools that have great leeway in curriculum and management but are funded with tax dollars; there are private schools where children's families pay tuition and receive virtually no government money; and there are home "schools" where families educate their own children. The private and home schools must register with the government and must meet a few basic standards to be approved as satisfying the requirements of the compulsory attendance law; but they have great latitude in curriculum and management and are completely free to engage the children in religious worship or political activity.

Why not let a child's family choose from among all schools available (public, charter, private, and homeschool), and send a voucher for that child's government-supplied schooling money directly to the chosen school (and perhaps allow private schools charging higher tuition to accept the government money as part of what the family pays)? That possibility greatly worries the public school bureaucracy and the teachers' union, because they know they charge a high price for a low quality of service. For example, Catholic parochial schools in large cities typically charge substantially lower tuition than the per-pupil expenditure in the city public school system, and parochial school parents seem much happier with the academic rigor and disciplinary control.

Current proposals to adopt a WSF make clear that only public schools (including charter schools) would be eligible to receive government money, because such a restriction is politically necessary to get the WSF adopted by a Legislature dominated by strong labor unions. But suppose union objections could somehow be set aside. Even then, perhaps we would prefer not to privatize or fragment the public school system so totally.

Public education has always been seen as society's great equalizer. Here's a thought experiment.

Suppose private schools and homeschooling were prohibited by law, and there were no charter schools. All children must attend the public schools, which have a uniform curriculum throughout Hawai'i and a uniform set of tests which all children must pass. It wouldn't matter whether a child's family was rich or poor; smart or stupid. Each child would have the same resources available to him in the public schools, and no way to go outside the system to get a superior education. Each child could rise or fall based on his own abilities, with no elite academies to pass along upper-class privilege to children whose parents were wealthy. That's the way the public school system theoretically operated in the old Soviet Union. And in practice, the entire nation, spanning eleven time zones and hundreds of ethnic groups, had a uniform curriculum, uniform set of textbooks for each grade, and a rigorous set of common standards. There was also a common set of political beliefs in which the children were indoctrinated, and a common set of religious beliefs (atheist materialism).

At the opposite extreme, imagine that there are no public schools at all. Each family educates its children however it wishes, spending whatever of its own resources it chooses to allocate; or puts the children to work in the family's own cottage industry at home, or sends the children to work for a neighbor or in a factory. Each child grows up believing in whatever religion or non-religion the family imposes on him, and whatever political opinions. Wealthy families might hire a battery of private tutors for each child, or send them to attend high-priced private academies that prepare them to become captains of industry and leaders in the community. These wealthy children inherit not only wealth but social and political power regardless whether they have the ability to perform well. Children of poor families might never learn to read, and have no future except as low-wage earners even if they have extraordinarily high IQ or artistic skills.

And so some basic questions require more thought. What should be the relationship among children, parents, and society? Should children be regarded as the property of their parents, completely free from government regulation and to be educated according to whatever values and economic resources the parents give them? Should children be regarded as the property of society, being protected against parental abuse or neglect and required to attend government-approved schools at government expense even if the parents would rather put them in private schools or even put them to work? If a child has severe learning disabilities or physical handicaps, should those deficits be the responsibility of the parent to manage, or should they be the responsibility of society? Who pays, and on what theory?

Bear in mind that the future of any society depends on how it educates its children. In Hawai'i today, we believe that each family should be able to give its children a "good" academic or vocational education and a "good" set of values while protecting them against the "bad" influences of our culture. On the other hand, we also believe that each child has a basic right to a free and appropriate education that will help him achieve the maximum of his potentials and become a productive citizen, even if the parents are evil, abusive, or neglectful.

If we adopt the WSF concept #1, that government money for education should follow a child to whatever school he attends, how much latitude should be given to parents to choose among traditional public schools, charter schools, private schools, or homeschools? Should we impose minimum standards on all schools eligible for government money, to ensure that society's vested interest in educating a productive citizenry will be protected? Should we allow parents to use the government education money attached to their children however the parents choose, to ensure that parents will have maximum freedom and control over their own children and over the use of their own tax dollars?

Now consider the second concept of WSF, that the amount of government money attached to a child should be different for different categories of children, depending on their special needs. Consider how this concept is related to fundamental principles of economics. On one hand, it establishes an incentive for schools to cater to special-needs children, thereby improving services for them. On the other hand, it establishes an incentive for parents and schools to get children labeled as having special needs in order to get the extra government money.

The Felix Consent Decree requires that the Hawai'i public school system must improve the allocation of resources to provide a free and appropriate education to children with special needs. The WSF would provide extra government money to be attached to children with special needs. Thus, there would be an incentive for schools to create special curriculum and facilities, and hire specially trained teachers, in order to convince parents to send their Felix-class children (and the government money) to these schools. The question is, how much would be the premium? How much extra money would accompany these children? If the premium is too small, there's not enough incentive for schools to devote extra resources to attract such children. If the premium is too large, it will take away money from "normal" and "gifted" children.

There's another problem, that paying a premium for special-needs children will create an incentive for parents and schools to identify (perhaps to invent) more such children, and thus the costs of the entire system will rise. For several decades now, savvy parents have known how to milk the "special education" system to get individualized attention for their children. Normal, average children easily get lost in the system and are ignored. Attention and resources are focused on children with behavioral problems and learning disabilities. So clever parents sometimes point to their children's failing grades, earned through lack of effort, and demand special testing for learning disorders or dyslexia. Parents will point to disciplinary problems, caused by parental neglect or abuse or "spoiled child syndrome," and demand special evaluation for emotional problems or attention deficit disorder. The parents might even hire a lawyer and demand an IEP (individualized educational plan). The Felix Consent Decree has worsened the frequency and severity of these abuses. The WSF will add a financial incentive to encourage school personnel to conspire with aggressive parents to make mountains out of molehills so that extra money will flow to the school and its bureaucracy. If the financial premium of government money for special needs children is too small, it will not be effective in stimulating creation of programs to help such children; but if the premium is large enough to stimulate program development it may also be large enough to stimulate a large growth in the number of children identified as having special needs. As in "Field of Dreams": if we build it, they will come. As some say regarding highway planning: if we build more roads, they'll buy more cars and drive more, and the highways will still be overcrowded. If government pays a large bonus for special-needs children, there will be a correspondingly large incentive for both parents and schools to classify children as having special needs.

Before the days of "mainstreaming" there used to be entire schools set aside for children with developmental or behavioral problems; or entire classrooms within a school. The advantage was that specially trained teachers and administrators could deal efficiently with all such children, and "normal" children in "normal" schools with "normal" teachers could move ahead efficiently without constant interruptions and distractions. It's commonly said by business executives that 80% of all the problems are caused by 20% of the customers, and 80% of all the profits are generated by 20% of the customers. The same situation prevails in today's mainstreamed schools. Adopting a weighted student formula could be seen as a way of encouraging some schools to focus on special needs children as a niche market, because those schools would know they would get substantially more money per child and could provide services to them less expensively through the economy of scale. Other schools might choose to avoid children with special needs because these schools judge that the premium attached to such children is not large enough to cover the costs of having just a few of them mainstreamed with everyone else. Thus the WSF might exert the pressure of the marketplace to force the school system away from mainstreaming and back toward the older style of separating special-needs children in specialized schools or classrooms. Thus the question arises, whether the social values of egalitarian mainstreaming and compassion outweigh the economic efficiency of segregating special-needs children, and how much extra society is willing to pay.

We are fortunate to live in a caring and compassionate society. We want to help needy people, and especially children. Leaders of some organizations take advantage of society's kindness and generosity by marketing an entire racial group as being poor and downtrodden, in order to get private donations and government money allocated to their "service provider" institutions. OHA, Kamehameha School and other racial separatist organizations have already spent loads of money hiring experts to produce reports claiming to show that an entire racial group has "special needs" as demonstrated in poor school performance, poor health, poor housing, etc. It is claimed that an entire racial group has different values, and genetically or culturally programmed ways of learning that are different from everyone else; and that such "special needs" racial differences require a separate educational system. Considering how powerful these institutions are in the political life of Hawai'i, they can be expected to demand that "Native Hawaiian" be added to the weighted student formula as a category needing extra money, alongside Felix-class children and immigrant children for whom English is a second language [see endnote -- the day after this essay was published, legislators actually did discuss such a concept with OHA trustees!]. Indeed, it would not be surprising to see a claim that children in the Hawaiian language immersion schools have been educated by the State of Hawai'i to speak Hawaiian as their first language and should therefore be given extra money in the WSF in the same category as Filipino or Samoan immigrants who are disadvantaged in English (this ESL bonus in the WSF would be in addition to the "Native Hawaiian" victimhood bonus).

In a society whose kindness of heart is so easily taken advantage of, the money allocated to special-needs children grows larger while the total amount of money available remains the same or shrinks. One of the worst aspects of society's benevolence toward special needs children is the neglect of those who are gifted and talented. Our future depends upon the next generation. Harsh as it may sound, we must consider carefully how to allocate limited resurces. Given $25,000 for a year, should we spend it all on one severely retarded child to keep him occupied without injuring himself and perhaps help him succeed in writing his name? Should we spend the same amount of money to provide current levels of education to 4 average children, 2 or 3 of whom will become taxpaying citizens producing goods and services we need? Should we spend the same amount to educate 2 talented children by adding enrichment programs, advanced-placement courses, and extra counseling? Should we spend all $25,000 on one extraordinarily gifted future scientist or humanitarian who will discover a cure for cancer, or win a Nobel Prize for peace?

Gifted and talented children are an extremely valuable resource that we are in danger of squandering. They will become our leaders in science, technology, the arts, and politics. Teacher-education experts sometimes give lip service to the concept that children who are gifted and talented should be regarded as special-needs children. Unfortunately it is only lip service. Gifted and talented children have extraordinary needs for special curriculum and special counseling. But all too often such children are simply ignored, because it is assumed that they can take care of themselves and will achieve great results even with mediocre teachers or curriculum. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. Children with learning disabilities or behavioral problems get the teacher's attention in a mainstreamed classroom, and they get the school system's attention in the allocation of resources through the Felix Consent Decree, now perhaps to be greatly magnified through the weighted student formula.

The concept of equality is also at issue in the WSF. When we say government (the public schools) should treat everyone equally, are we talking about equality of opportunity, or equality of result? Some might say equal opportunity means providing identical resources to all children and "letting the cream rise to the top." Under such a theory it would be difficult to justify a WSF. But some might say equal opportunity requires consideration of each child's unique abilities and deficits, to ensure that each child receives the resources he needs to give him an equal chance of success. Under such a theory a WSF might be essential to achieve "social justice." However, there would need to be a large number of variables in the algebra of such a formula, because there are so many abilities and deficits to take into account, and a continuous range of valuations along the continuum of each variable. This sort of approach inevitably produces over-regulation and constant struggle to quantify nebulous categories. Perhaps the extreme theory of equality is recognizable from Karl Marx's slogan: "From each according to ability, to each according to need."

The WSF will be a definition of what we value most highly in education. When the federal government agricultural price-support system allocated extra money to raise the payment to farmers for producing cheese, the government warehouses were soon overflowing with cheese. Government price-supports for sugar have played an important part in shaping Hawai'i's history for 150 years. The WSF will become very important in shaping the future of our educational system and the kinds of adults it produces. Tinkering with the formula will become an annual ritual in the Legislature, with heavy lobbying from powerful interest groups. It's worth thinking about. The old Soviet economic system featured detailed centralized planning of production and consumption. The theory was that such planning would promote efficiency and raise the standard of living. The actual result was massive inefficiency caused by bureaucratic inertia, turf wars, and corruption. WSF in some ways resembles centralized planning, by creating artificially imposed economic rewards to encourage services to specific groups. Yet in other ways WSF is a reform of a centralized bureaucracy that would move toward a laissez-faire free-market system, because it would empower individual families to use the financial power of taxpayer dollars to reward schools that deliver services effectively and to put out of business schools that do not. It's worth thinking about.

NOTE: One issue raised in this article is the possibility that powerful ethnic Hawaiian institutions, including OHA, "can be expected to demand that "Native Hawaiian" be added to the weighted student formula as a category needing extra money, alongside Felix-class children and immigrant children for whom English is a second language." This article was published in Hawaii Reporter on-line newspaper on Monday, April 12, 2004.
Just two days later, two powerful legislators discussed exactly that concept with OHA trustees, as reported by Laura Brown in an article published April 15 in Hawaii Reporter.
"Sen. Norman Sakamoto and Rep. Roy Takumi attended the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) Beneficiary meeting yesterday to explain to the trustees how their education reform bill “reinvents” education. ... Another trustee complained that over half of the Hawaiian children are dropping out of school in some areas ... Changing the subject and throwing out some bait for his plan, Rep. Takumi said that the Committee on Weights that is established in this education reform bill might even consider adding “Hawaiian” as one of weighting criteria, bringing more money to schools with Hawaiian populations."


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