Dirty Secret In The Education Wars: Money Matters

Jeff Bryant

An interesting twist in the ever-fascinating narrative of Republican politics unfolded in Mississippi this month when political operatives in the campaign to reelect U.S. Senator Thad Cochran to another term attacked their primary challenger for wanting to “deeply cut federal education dollars on which Mississippi schools rely.”

Wait a sec – don’t all Republicans, especially from deep red states in the South, want to deeply cut federal spending? Apparently not, according to, what the article identified as, “establishment Republicans” backing the senator, who they say “would protect money for students and teachers.”

The dirty, little secret in America’s education wars is that spending more money on schools is what most people really want – and for good reason, because it really tends to help. Yet what we’ve been seeing in a “reform” agenda that has dominated the debate is an emphasis on anything else but.

The conventional wisdom tends to be that asking for more money is a policy cop-out – throwing money at the problem, while the Very Serious People grapple with the ever-more-so weighty topics of Value Added Measures and Adequate Yearly Progress.

Meanwhile, in other sectors, the act of merely spending more money matters a lot to people who are also taken pretty seriously – like the folks at the International Monetary Fund. When the IMF announced its recent decision to downgrade its forecast for U.S. economic growth in the coming year, a significant reason for their decision was because the country had been failing to “boost spending, notably on infrastructure,” according to a report in The Guardian.

So the mere act of spending more money seems to matter a lot in most arenas other than education. But public education has been a significant part of the country’s infrastructure that has been the most neglected.

What Recovery?

Now that the worst damage of the last recession is past us, and most states are experiencing increasing tax revenues – which along with local property taxes fuel most of education funding – one would think public schools would be experiencing somewhat of an upside. Ben Casselman at the FiveThirtyEight news outlet recently analyzed the financial big picture for public education and reached the counterintuitive conclusion that economic recovery was actually “taking a toll on the nation’s public schools.”

Apparently, federal dollars helped mitigate some of the damage of the Great Recession, but that source of spending “fell more than 20 percent from 2010 to 2012, while “state and local funding per student were essentially flat.”

The results are, “adjusting for inflation and growth in student enrollment, spending fell every year from 2010 to 2012, even as costs for health care, pension plans, and special education programs continued to rise faster than inflation.”

Further, the “cuts are increasingly hitting classrooms directly” as money for “instructional expenses … fell faster than overall spending” in 2011-12.

The cutting is generally the deepest for big city schools, Casselman found, and states that historically spend less per student.

Per-student costs for K-12 school now average around $10,600, which is “roughly the 2006 level after adjusting for inflation.” To drive that point home, Casselman quoted Noelle Ellerson, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, who said, “The kids who started kindergarten in fall of 2007, these kids are in sixth grade now. Half of their educational experience in the K-12 system has not been in prerecession funding levels.”

Wait, It Gets Worse

The two issues of funding adequacy and equity Casselman found in his analysis are subjects of further study by Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker in a new paper, “Evaluating the Recession’s Impact on Equity & Adequacy of State School Finance Systems” (current draft).

Baker looked at not just the level of state funding to schools (adequacy), but also the fairness (equity) of the funding distribution – from federal, state, and local sources.

Equity, it must be understood, does not mean “every kid gets the same amount.” Rather, Baker explained, real equity is providing all children, regardless of their educational settings or personal backgrounds, the resources and opportunity they need to achieve similar outcome goals. In other words, if we want kids who come from low-income households or from families who don’t speak English – two demographic characteristics strongly correlated with lower achievement – to achieve the same common outcome goals as their better-off, fluent English peers, that requires funding adjustments to support the additional costs of achieving those outcome goals – whether those costs are for additional staff specialists, smaller class sizes, or more experienced, higher-paid teachers. That’s what an approach to fairly funding schools would insist on.

What Baker found, however, was, “The recent recession yielded an unprecedented decline in public school funding fairness. 36 states had a three-year average reduction in current spending fairness between 2008-09 and 2010-11 and 32 states had a three-year average reduction in state and local revenue fairness over that same time period.”

Another finding in Baker’s analysis: Two factors, cuts in state aid to schools and “a shifting role for federal aid,” were chief reasons for the declining funding fairness during the downturn.

So even those increased federal government outlays Casselman found in his research for FiveThirtyEight, which temporarily plugged the gap in state aid declines immediately following the downturn, may not have had any effect, or could have even harmed, funding fairness.

The bulk of federal stimulus dollars intended for education, of course, went to the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competitive grant program, and the goals of RTTT generally ignored the issue of funding equity.

Why Money Matters

Baker’s report cited above also made a strong case for the critical role that funding adequacy and fairness have in academic achievement. “A body of literature has now shown the positive effects of equity and adequacy improvements of the prior 40+ years of school finance reform,” he contended.

One of the studies Baker cited, was a new working paper public policy researchers from Northwestern University and the University of California-Berkeley that examined the effects of court orders that attempt to equalize funding for poor and wealthy school districts.

According to a report at Vox, the researchers found, “Spending more money on educating children in poor districts can dramatically change the trajectory of those children’s lives.”

After comparing students in school before fair funding reforms were implemented to students who were in school after the reforms were passed, the analysis found, “A 20 percent increase in per-pupil spending could make a big difference for students from poor families … The additional spending had virtually closed the high school graduation gap between poor students and their wealthier peers. High school graduation rates increased 23 percentage points for poor students, and those students attended school or college for another year on average.”

Another recent study, this one conducted by the Boston Consulting Group for Advance Illinois, investigated the relationship between the way each of the 50 states funds K-12 public education and that state’s student outcomes on the National Assessment of Educational Progress for 4th grade reading scores and 8th grade math scores from 2003 to 2011. According to an article at Education Week, the analysis found, “How much state governments spend per pupil and how they spend it does in fact have a significant correlation with achievement, particularly for the low-income students.”

According to the findings, adequate funding mattered a lot. The researches found, “A $1,000-per-pupil funding increase is correlated with a .42-point increase in NAEP scores for low-income 4th graders [and] an increase of 20 percentage points in the state share of spending correlated with a 1-point improvement in the 8th grade math scores of low-income students.”

Funding fairness mattered even more as, “An improvement in the equity of funding across a state can improve academic performance without any additional spending overall. And the effect is significant: For example, a 20-point improvement in the equity ratio, holding all other factors constant, is correlated with nearly 2 point improvement in 4th grade NAEP reading scores for low-income students, equal to a roughly 1 percent gain.”

Where Do Democrats Stand?

While Republicans have a preposterous discussion about how they’re going to be for education while they’re attacking just about any and all government spending (outside of the military), the Democratic Party has been happy to push a platform of “accountability” that either ignores the necessity of adequate and equitable funding or confines that issue to narrow policy proposals such as early childhood education expansion or relief for students’ college loan debt.

Expanding access to pre-K education and making higher education more affordable are important causes for sure, but where are the Democratic champions for adequate and equitable funding for our K-12 students?

The truth is, when it comes to education, everyone knows money matters a lot. The first politician who decides to press for an agenda of adequate and equitable funding in a meaningful, powerful, and realistic way can lead the most valid and bold “education reform” movement of all.

Comments