Stacking the Deck Against School Funding

While many of us teach and write about the many reasons (moral and otherwise) to address funding inequities in public education, the press regularly reports on “research” that suggests that substantial increases in school funding don’t produce gains in achievement. These studies are, in turn, cited by policy makers to counter demands for increased funding for schools.

I’ve always appreciated Jonathon Kozol’s response to such arguments: that if funding doesn’t matter, all of those savvy, well-educated parents in suburban schools would quit funding the smaller classes, art teachers, computers, well-stocked libraries, elaborate field trips, and science specialists for their own kids because those parents are not known for casually wasting their money.

But I’ve also wondered what is behind that “research”. Thus, I was interested in this essay from The School Administrator, in which the research methods of one such report are called into question. A quote from the essay:

[L]et’s begin with the report’s claim that even though “per pupil expenditures have increased by 77.4 percent (after adjusting for inflation)” over the past two decades, “student performance has improved only slightly.”

This claim is based on the incorrect assumption schools have the same spending needs now as in the mid-1980s. In reality, school expenditures have increased most on items that are unlikely to show up in standardized test scores, such as special education, dropout prevention, transportation services, health care for employees, school security and free- and reduced-price meals.

Dropout prevention programs offer the best example of the erroneous approach used in the ALEC report. A successful dropout program will keep low-scoring students in school, thus reducing average test scores for the school. The more money spent, the lower the scores.

The Think Tank Review Project, cited in this article, would seem to be a potentially good resource for verifying the claims made by various “research” groups weighing in on educational policy issues. At very least, these reviews could inform the public about conventions of research and, perhaps, support more critical reading beyond the headlines that such reports can generate. This assumes, of course, that the public has an interest in learning more about what does make schools work.

This assumes, too, that the public would be willing to read beyond the think tanks and policy analysts that support what they already believe about schools.

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