Wednesday, December 14, 2016
New Study Finds That Money Has a Large Effect on Student Achievement, But It Is Not News--It Is a Sad Reminder of What We Must Do
The New York Times took note of a new school funding study Monday, titling the article It Turns Out Spending More Probably Does Improve Education. The study by Julien Lafortune, Jesse Rothstein, and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach found that school funding "reforms lead to sharp, immediate, and sustained increases in spending in low-income school districts. Using representative samples from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, we find that reforms cause increases in the achievement of students in these districts, phasing in gradually over the years following the reform. The implied effect of school resources on educational achievement is large." To put it in perspective, they write "After desegregation, school finance reform is perhaps the most important education policy change in the United States in the last half century."
Our results thus show that money can and does matter in education . . . School finance reforms are blunt tools, and some critics have argued that they will be offset by changes in district or voter choices over tax rates or that funds will be spent so inefficiently as to be wasted. Our results do not support these claims. Courts and legislatures can evidently force improvements in school quality for students in low-income districts. But there is an important caveat to this conclusion. As we discuss in Section VI, the average low-income student does not live in a particularly low-income district, so is not well targeted by a transfer of resources to the latter. Thus, we find that finance reforms reduced achievement gaps between high- and low-income school districts but did not have detectable effects on resource or achievement gaps between high- and low-income (or white and black) students. Attacking these gaps via school finance policies would require changing the allocation of resources within school districts, something that was not attempted by the reforms that we study.
To be clear, I will be citing and relying on this study in my own work. It is a good one, but those who have studied school funding for years will be a little miffed with the New York Times' framing of the study. This new study, while high in quality and nuance, does not reveal something particular new. It is incorrect to suggest the study's findings are a surprise-- that it "turn[s] out" that money improves education. This has been the consensus of social science for decades. See my discussion of the literature here.
The problem is that the issue has been so poorly reported and debated that the study seems like news to most. Then again, maybe we have just conveniently ignored it. Either way, education budgets have been decimated over the past decade with little more than a whimper from most national and local media. During the Recession, every state cut education. Most cut it with a hatchet, with cuts of twenty percent or more in several states and over ten percent in the largest chunk. Equally disturbing is that most states have still yet to fully replace those funds. The most recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities indicates that, in real dollar terms, thirty states are still funding education below their pre-recession level.
Things have been so bad that people simply stopped pursuing careers in education, so much so that when states finally began rehiring teachers last year, there were literally no applicants to fill those jobs. School districts actually began using billboards on the highway to beg people to apply. California told prospective applicants they jump right into the classroom if they would just enroll in a teacher preparation program--they could finish their degrees on the weekends. It was only this tailing effect of school funding cuts that finally caught widespread attention.
The overall trend calls for intervention and a new approach by legislatures and courts. For more, see Averting Educational Crisis: Funding Cuts, Teacher Shortages, and the Dwindling Commitment to Public Education.