Let’s Stop Debating and Make Sure That Low-Income Students Get Equitable Funding

May 20, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Ben Spielberg

A couple of weeks ago, we published a piece on Money and Schools from blogger Dmitri Melhorn, below Ben Spielberg has written a response to criticisms of school funding.
On average, students from low-income families in the United States attend public schools that receive considerably less money per pupil than schools serving students from wealthy families. That point isn’t up for debate; it’s a well-established fact. The evidence is also clear that increased funding for low-income schools would benefit the students who attend them. Recent studies have confirmed this point:
Increases in absolute and relative spending in low-income school districts…cause gradual increases in the relative achievement of students in low-income school districts, consistent with the goal of improving educational opportunity for these students.
Money isn’t a panacea, of course, and it needs to be spent wisely. But school funding skeptics are wrong to insist that “extra money will not lead to significant or sustainable improvements for students” absent “significant structural reforms.” In a recent report from the Shanker Institute, Does Money Matter in Education, Rutgers professor Bruce Baker notes:
[M]any of the ways in which schools currently spend money…improve student outcomes [and, w]hen schools have more money, they have greater opportunity to spend productively.
Arguments against increased funding for low-income schools are typically rooted in misunderstandings of the four following points:
  1. Many factors—most of which have nothing to do with schools—influence student outcomes. While practices made possible by adequate funding are some of the most important school-based factors driving those outcomes, funding alone cannot even come close to explaining broad patterns in student test score results.

    Simple scatterplots and the observation that student outcome trends haven’t tracked school funding trends on a one-to-one basis thus prove nothing about the relationship between funding and outcomes.

    To understand that relationship, we must try to hold other factors constant and isolate funding’s impact. The studies that do that, as mentioned above, pretty consistently find that increased funding is beneficial for students.

  2. K-12 education spending should increase over time. Critics often point out that inflation-adjusted education spending per pupil has risen significantly over the past half-century or so. We would only expect such spending to remain constant, however, if we were okay with no improvement in education quality—and a declining ratio between the compensation of education professionals and compensation in other professions during that time.

    In other words, we shouldn’t be okay with 1954 spending levels unless we’re okay with 1954-quality textbooks, facilities, class sizes, instruction, and technology, not to mention low and stagnant teacher compensation that would make it even more difficult to attract current job seekers into the profession.

    That doesn’t mean every education dollar has been spent well, nor does it mean that educational quality has improved as much as it should have over the past 50 to 60 years, but it does mean that education spending levels alone tell us surprisingly little about whether that spending is sufficient.

  3. We can afford to spend more on education. Though absolute education spending in the United States is relatively high compared to absolute education spending in other countries, K-12 spending as a share of the U.S. economy, which has remained roughly constant over time, is actually below the OECD average.

    As with absolute spending levels, that fact doesn’t in and of itself tell us whether spending is sufficient, but critics are wrong to dismiss it: It tells us that we have the resources to spend more if we so choose and that other countries prioritize investments in K-12 education more highly.

  4. Even if it didn’t lead to improvements in student outcomes (it does), more adequate school funding would still be essential for low-income students. The primary reason for increased funding at low-income schools is that unequal funding is inherently inequitable.

    It is not okay for some students to spend the day in well-maintained buildings with numerous extracurricular activities on offer while other students attend understaffed schools in which “[e]xposed wires hang from missing ceiling tiles [and w]atermarks from leaks abound.” Protests from students and teachers across the country, from New York to Chicago to Seattle to Detroit to Boston, are often direct responses to unacceptable learning conditions.

Given these realities, more adequate and equitable funding for low-income schools (as opposed to just districts as funding is allocated inequitably both across and within districts) must be the starting point of our K-12 education advocacy, not something we condition on schools adopting our specific wish lists of education reforms. Even Eric Hanushek, one of the very few researchers whom school funding skeptics cite, seems to acknowledge the need for greater funding equity, agreeing that “you have to provide extra resources and help for kids who start at a lower point because of their backgrounds.” Those hesitant to spend more money overall might simply argue for redistribution from wealthier to poorer schools. Others, like me, support a greater overall investment that brings funding in poorer schools above what we currently invest in wealthier schools. Either way, it’s long past time to move away from a conversation about whether to make funding for low-income schools more adequate and equitable and start talking about how best to do it.

Ben Spielberg

Ben Spielberg, a former Teach For America corps member, instructional coach and member of the executive board of the San Jose Teachers Association, co-founded and blogs at 34justice.com.

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