These days one assertion pervades nearly every discussion on education: schools perform poorly, because they lack the resources to do a good job.
For many, it’s reasonable to think so. The argument goes something like this: our culture links price and quality. A luxury $50,000 automobile is more desirable than a practical $10,000 sedan. The private college that charges $50,000 or tuition is perceived as a better school that the college that only charges $30,000 for tuition. Schools fail to pay teachers what they deserve, so it’s difficult to expect our schools to be better. If we want to improve our schools and student achievement, we have to spend more money.
Similar narratives are all around us.
Earlier this year, Jason Willis, director of strategy and performance, at WestEd, an education consulting firm told the Governor’s Commission on Access to a Sound Basic Education that “School districts lack the funding necessary to meet educational needs.”
Recently, consultants recommended that North Carolina spend up to an additional $8 billion on the public schools over eight years to ensure the state is in compliance with the constitutional requirement that all schools offer a “sound, basic education.”
There is a lot that is assumed here. Implicit in the recommendations is an assumption that the problem of student achievement was correctly defined, policymakers understand what factors and influences contribute to it and that the proper staffing is in place and when needed, programming can be readily developed. The only missing ingredient to produce the desired results is funding. The report focuses almost exclusively on inputs.
Does more spending really produce better educational results such as better outcomes or improved student achievement?
According to the chart listed above, real per student support for North Carolina students has increased about 8 percent while ADM student enrollment has declined 1.6 percent. Has the additional funding resulted in better schools, higher student achievement or better staff? Those are all questions taxpayers should ask.
A review of research (see here here here and here ) finds the relationship between spending and student achievement to be weak or inconclusive at best. Massive infusions of money do not always equate to improvement in educational outcomes. The U.S. is one of the highest spenders in the world when it comes to spending per student. However, nations that spend much less per student are producing students who do better on international and standardized tests. If spending correlates with higher student achievement, why doesn’t’ the United States do better in OECD comparisons on academic performance?
In 2005-06, total expenditures for K-12 education in the U.S. totaled $528 billion in 2015-16, that number had ballooned to $706 billion. Do people believe there was a commensurate improvement in the schooling or student achievement? The federal government has spent billions to achieve equality, eliminate poverty and improve schools. The educational efforts have included No Child Left Behind, Common Core, Race to the Top and Every Student Succeeds Act. However test scores (NAEP) are flat or declining (Common Core) and achievement gaps persist.
A 2014 report by the CATO Institute reviewed 40 years of spending and educational outcomes and found that while spending has increased significantly, educational outcomes have not.
The same variability is present at the state level. Increased funding doesn’t seem to improve test scores. If it did, why don’t states that spend the most have the highest SAT scores and do the best on NAEP tests?
Since 1988, inflation adjusted per-pupil expenditures have increased 48 percent in North Carolina public schools.[i] However, test scores and other indicators show student achievement has not improved as expected.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, because of formulas developed to aid disadvantaged areas and populations, poor districts do often spend more than more well-off districts. Yet despite, additional spending, student achievement still lags. These results also contradict spending gaps. See also here.
A review of expenditure and test data for North Carolina public schools reveals no strong relationships correlations. There are districts that spend more and have below average outcomes and those that spend less and have above average outcomes.
These realities point to the presence of other important influences and also why the assumed linkage between spending and quality should be challenged.
Spending tells an incomplete story
Focusing on overall spending tells only half the story and in many ways the story is slanted. An intense focus on spending falsely elevates the school as the primary variable in a student’s success. It implies that schools are the determinants of success –or failure. The focus on spending ignores the importance of other inputs – or outputs. And by implication assumes everything else – inputs and outputs – are as they should be. The problem here is funding and making sure there is enough of it.
There are problems with such thinking. Of course, this is not to imply that money and resources are not important. They are. The obsession with funding fails to acknowledge that numerous factors influence student achievement including, parental involvement, effective teaches and leaders, student discipline, school quality and socio-economic conditions.
Such thinking downplays the role and responsibility of the individual and the family in the educational process. It ignores the countless examples of individuals who by their own perseverance, determination and the help of others, overcame challenging circumstances and learned anyway and went on to contribute to society. An obsession with spending ignores the fact that the family—not the school—is the most important influence on a child’s academic achievement, a fact that was established in the Coleman Report over 50 years ago. That monumental report which still echoes today, said that schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context. Yes, funding is important, but people matter more and can often overcome the challenges found in so many public schools.
How to Improve Education
Education Productivity. While money is important. Policymakers should focus on how our tax dollars are being spent. What kind of return do taxpayers get for their money? Call it Education Productivity and it’s a concept Ulrich Boser of the Center for American Progress explored. Boser developed a set of relatively simple productivity metrics in order to measure the achievement that a school district produces relative to its spending. He also controlled for factors outside a district’s control, such as the cost of living and students living in poverty. Boser than developed an educational productivity score to every school district in the United States. What did he find? The U.S. suffers from an education productivity crisis that costs the nation billions. However, few Americans know about the crisis because so few states or districts track what they are getting for their money. Do we need more money or a better idea of how money is being spent?
Revamp how schools are funded. North Carolina uses over 30 funding formulas to fund public schools. It’s an outdated, complicated, ineffective and inequitable way to fund our public schools. Districts receive money from the state, federal and local governments. Funding is distributed based on need, program or grade level but is not distributed equally to all districts. To ensure adequate resources, funding should be tied to the student and based on meeting specific needs. These changes can help eliminate waste and better ensure students get the resources they need – which should always be the primary goal of education funding.
Enhance Accountability: Decentralize education as much as possible. Since about two-thirds of all school funding comes from the state, there will always be accountability issues. The state’s long shadow can act to impede local governance of public education. To the extent possible, states, should work to decentralize education as much as practicable. The locus of decision making must shift to the local level. Principals and superintendents should be empowered to make real decisions about teachers, teacher pay, staffing and spending. Districts should be incentivized to embrace more local control and should be rewarded financially when they do so.
Call for transparency. How much does it cost to educate a student to graduation? How much does it cost to operate various schools? Those are important questions. In most cases, however, people lack the data and information to answer those questions. It simply isn’t available. Districts should be required to post on a district web site a record of all spending and outside contracts at both the district and school level. Districts need to develop financial metrics so parents can have an idea of how schools are performing relative to certain goals and also in comparison to other schools.
Make parents the boss. Schools exist to serve parents and families. When schools reflect this reality, they will develop different schools to meet the varying needs of different students. Parents should also determine how and where children are educated and provide the authority for parents to make those decisions. These decisions will empower parents with ultimate accountability. The ability to remove a child from school – whether public or private – is a source of comfort for parents as well as an incentive for schools to do their jobs well and be responsive to parents.
Do schools need more money to perform better? That’s a myth that must be challenged. Yes, resources are important and additional funding can be significant – especially if it is targeted properly. It’s a mistake however, to think all we need to improve education is to shovel more money into the system. Many factors contribute to student achievement and good schools. We need to recognize the importance of all these factors when considering how to improve our schools. We all need to consider not only inputs, but outcomes as well. Do our schools operate within a system that has properly-funded, accountable, and transparent? These are important questions that should accompany any discussion of education funding. When we expand this discussion, the polarization and controversy which has marked so much of the debate over education funding in North Carolina will be a thing of the past.
[i] Calculations made from annual expenditure data from North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and using adjusting data using annual price deflator using 2019 constant dollars.