Two recent studies take the topic of school funding and achievement head on, and they conclude that more money improves student achievement, and even boosts earning power after graduation. According to the studies, the results are strongest for children from low income families. It looks like "throwing money at schools," as critics like to typify spending increases, pushes students forward.
Results of studies on education are always worth questioning because it's so hard to run a controlled study. Children aren't genetically similar lab rats; every child is unique in nature and nurture. And you can't separate children into neat control groups and experimental groups. So researchers have to do their best to pull results from messy, real-world education data.
One group of researchers spent decades using a set of student data to "prove" that class size doesn't affect learning. Then another group of researchers took the same data set and created a convincing argument that lowering class size actually does improve student achievement. For years, education researchers on the conservative end of the spectrum have "proven" that you don't get any bang for added education bucks. When they're being more cautious, they say there's no evidence that increasing funding has any positive effects. Now, some researchers have created two high quality studies which indicate the opposite. Like all studies of this kind, the results aren't take-it-to-the-bank certain, but these are pretty damn robust. The two studies are summarized here
, with links to longer discussions by the studies' authors.
The studies take advantage of the fact that since 1990, 26 states changed their school funding and 23 others left theirs alone. That allowed them to compare changes in student achievement in districts with increased funding to districts where funding didn't change.
The problem is, how do you compare student achievement? One group of researchers used the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) exam which has been given to a national sample of students since the 1970s and is considered the most valid and reliable standardized test there is by educators across the political spectrum. The researchers were able to look at individual student scores in districts they were comparing so they could match up students who were similar in terms of race and income. The result was, student scores in districts with added funding increased more than those in districts where funding stayed the same.
If the authors have it right, more money for schools with low income students means a significant improvement in achievement.
A second study looks at longer term effects of increased funding. It concludes that a 10 percent funding increase in schools with mostly low income students results in a 10 percent increase in graduation, 10 percent higher wages and a 6 percent reduction in the incidence of adult poverty. The changes in schools with higher income students aren't as large.
Assuming the studies are accurate, what does that mean here in Arizona? A 10 percent boost in funding would come to about $750 million, close to Ed Supe Diane Douglas' recommendation for a $680 million increase. True, that's a serious chunk of change, but let's put it into perspective. Right now we're 49th in the nation in per student funding. The added $750 million would leapfrog us over Oklahoma, all the way up to 48th place. To equal 47th place Mississippi, we'd have to add another $150 million to the pot. Who knows, maybe, since we're at the bottom of the funding barrel and have such a long way to go to make a significant move upward, we'd get even better results if we added, say, 20 percent.
If the second study is accurate, we'd get the biggest bang for our added bucks by putting the extra money into districts with more low income kids and not worrying about high rent districts like Catalina Foothills and Vail. That might not go over so well with our more well-heeled citizens, but if they're into saving some money, the studies indicate that scrimping on their kids' educations is the way to go.
An It's-Not-What-You-Spend-It's-How-You-Spend-It Note:
A favorite argument of the "Don't throw money at education" crowd is, the amount of money a district receives is less important than how they spend it. One of their favorite distractions is focusing on how much of the total budget makes it into the classroom. That's important, sure, but a little basic number crunching shows how misleading the classroom funding comparison can be. What I find interesting about the two studies is, they don't consider how money was spent in the districts, only if districts increased their funding, and they find more money led to positive results. It looks like just "throwing" money at educators ("Heads up, catch!") and letting them figure out how to use it to benefit their students does a whole lot more good than finding a reason to deny them the money.