Friday, February 2, 2018

Study Finds Recession-Era Education Cuts Significantly Impacted Student Outcomes: How Many Constitutional Rights Were Violated?

A research team lead by Kirabo Jackson just released Do School Spending Cuts Matter? Evidence from the Great Recession.  They found:

districts that faced large revenue cuts disproportionately reduced spending on non-core operations. However, they still reduced core operational spending to some extent. A 10 percent school spending cut reduced test scores by about 7.8 percent of a standard deviation. Moreover, a 10 percent spending reduction during all four high-school years was associated with 2.6 percentage points lower graduation rates. While our estimates are smaller than some in the literature, spending cuts do matter.

These new findings are a follow-up to an equally important earlier study.  In 2014, C. Kirabo Jackson, Rucker Johnson, and Claudia Persico released a comprehensive analysis of the connection between school funding and student outcomes.  They "us[ed] a newly compiled database of school finance reforms and a recently available long panel of annual school district data on per-pupil spending that spans 1967–2010."  They then used "an event-study analysis of the effects of different types of school finance reforms on per-pupil spending in low- and high-income school districts."  They found that school finance reforms played a substantial role in equalizing school funding, or rather shrinking existing inequality.

The big question, however, was whether increases and equalization in school funding had a positive effect on students.  Using the same data set, they found

that a 20 percent increase in per-pupil spending each year for all 12 years of public school for children from poor families leads to about 0.9 more completed years of education, 25 percent higher earnings, and a 20 percentage-point reduction in the annual incidence of adult poverty; we find no effects for children from non-poor families. The magnitudes of these effects are sufficiently large to eliminate between two-thirds and all of the gaps in these adult outcomes between those raised in poor families and those raised in non-poor families. 

This was the most precise measure of the effect of school funding on student outcomes I had ever seen.  In Averting Educational Crisis: Funding Cuts, Teacher Shortages, and the Dwindling Commitment to Public Education, I used Jackson's work, along with two other analogous studies, to gauge the seriousness of the massive budget cuts that most states enacted following the Recession--much of which still remains in place today, a decade later.   Basic state constitutional law demands equal and adequate educational opportunities (in most states).  If Jackson and other's initial calculations were correct, there was a strong possibility that state legislature's were violating their state constitutions by imposing new educational harms.  The other problem has been that state supreme courts became less aggressive in enforcing education rights during the recession. Thus, violations were going up at the same time that remedies were going down, or disappearing all together.

Jackson’s new study of the Recession-era cuts confirms that my suspicions were correct, and all but a few courts did absolutely nothing about it.  The problem with the typical state supreme court school funding decision--even the positive ones--is that it only addresses education violations after the fact.  And the decisions almost never articulate standards to avert the next disaster.  They assume a world that just does not exist--one in which they explain the constitution to the legislature and it will act accordingly moving forward, even in the face of great challenges.  As a practical matter, this allows a vicious cycle of education violations to inevitably occur, and the students who suffer them are left to carry the full burden.

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