Tag Archives: school funding

The Truth About School Funding

Dmitri Mehlhorn, co-founder of StudentsFirst, wrote an article a few weeks ago about school funding titled, “How Money is Spent Matters.”  That statement is obviously true; who could disagree with it?

Unfortunately, the article’s actual argument – that “America’s schools are not underfunded” – is completely false.  This post corrects the record.  Funding for public primary and secondary education in the United States is, in fact, inadequate and inequitable, and rectifying this problem should be a top priority for anyone who cares about improving our schools.

We’re Far From School Funding Equity

But what is adequate and equitable school funding?  Researchers Bruce Baker and Danielle Farie and civil rights lawyer David Sciarra, who produce a National Report Card on school funding fairness, discuss this question at length in their 2015 report.  One of the most important principles they note is that, because “[v]arying levels of funding are required to provide equal educational opportunities to children with different needs[,] finance systems should provide more funding to districts serving larger shares of students in poverty.”

School funding in the United States doesn’t come close to meeting this criterion; as Baker, Farie, and Sciarra show, fourteen states have regressive school funding systems, meaning they allocate less money to schools serving disadvantaged students than they do to schools serving more affluent student populations.  Nineteen other states have roughly equivalent funding between the two types of schools.  Only four states – Minnesota, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Delaware – score high enough across all of the researchers’ criteria (funding level; funding distribution; effort, or funding as a share of the state’s economy; and coverage, or “the share of school-age children enrolled in public schools and the degree to which there is economic disparity between households in the public versus private education system”) to have their funding systems deemed “fair.”

This analysis likely represents an upper bound on the degree of school funding equity in the United States.  While California appears to have roughly equivalent funding for low- and high-income schools in the report, for example, there are major funding discrepancies between some of the state’s “basic aid” districts, which serve affluent students, and districts that serve lower-income populations.  Within-district variations in spending also go undetected in the report’s metrics, as may situations in which funding that is supposed to follow high-need students doesn’t reach them.

Inequitable school funding is a widely acknowledged problem, so much so that people associated with StudentsFirst – the very organization Mehlhorn co-founded – recognize that addressing it is imperative.  Yet Mehlhorn’s article doesn’t mention the distribution of school funding at all, except when making misleading statements about charter school spending.

Charter School Research Supports Calls for More School Funding

As Baker, Ken Libby, and Kathryn Wiley found in a careful 2012 analysis of charter school and traditional public school spending:

Comparative spending between the two sectors is mixed, with many high profile charter network schools outspending similar district schools in New York City and Texas, but other charter network schools spending less than similar district schools, particularly in Ohio.

Mehlhorn’s counterclaim that charter schools spend significantly less money than traditional public schools likely stems from a 2011 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, but it, like more cursory and flawed studies, may fail to appropriately categorize spending that should be assigned to each type of school.  Transportation funding and spending on food services and special education, for example, can be misclassified in such analyses.

In addition, students in traditional public schools perform just about as well on average as students in charters; as Harvard professor Tom Loveless has explained, the differences in student test score results between the two sectors “are extremely small, so tiny, in fact, that they lack real world significance.”  Mehlhorn’s inaccurate claims to the contrary rely on a completely invalid “months of learning” conversion performed in a recent study of urban charter schools; the study actually shows a tiny difference between the charter and traditional public school sectors (less than .06 standard deviations, or a good deal less than one additional question answered correctly on most tests).

In other words, there’s only one real conclusion that can be drawn about the research on overall levels of charter school funding and average student test scores: arguments touting charter schools as a low-cost solution to boost student achievement are either uninformed or deliberately misleading (especially because the student populations charters serve are typically unrepresentative subsets of the surrounding traditional public school populations, and because many studies don’t distinguish school effects from peer effects).

There is, of course, important variation in the charter sector; some studies indicate that students in some charter school networks do very well.  As Baker, Libby, and Wiley note, however, many of these networks spend substantially more per pupil (sometimes well over 30 percent more) than comparable public schools.  Similarly, the test score gains in New Orleans charters that Mehlhorn applauds came with a substantial price tag, a fact that his article conveniently omits.  The following excerpt from an interview with researcher Doug Harris is instructive on this point:

At the beginning New Orleans was spending about $8,000 more per pupil relative to similar districts. In other words, spending didn’t quite double, but it came pretty close to doubling in the initial years. And then it converged back to the normal, or close to normal rate. Now they’re spending about $1,000 more per pupil than similar districts, whereas before the storm they were spending close to the same as those comparison districts.

Harris doesn’t believe the test score gains in New Orleans were entirely a product of increased funding – he finds that explanation unlikely and thinks “every element of the reform package, including the change in spending, probably contributed in some fashion” – but acknowledges that it’s possible that increased funding played the primary role.  In addition, while Harris thinks there are important lessons to be learned from school reform there, he doubts “you’d see the same effects in other places because the conditions [in New Orleans] were distinctive.”

Either way, to the extent that best practices in certain successful charter schools drive their results, these practices can likely be replicated in traditional public schools that receive more adequate funding, as research by Roland Fryer suggests.  Especially because rapid charter school expansion has often led to harmful side-effects (in New Orleans, the large-scale firing of Black teachers and inattention to community preferences are poignant examples), our efforts are best focused not on promoting charters, but on adequately and equitably funding all schools, thus enabling them to implement best practices that may include but are not limited to better teacher training and support, more competitive teacher pay (to facilitate recruitment and retention), reduced class sizes, extended learning time, expanded tutoring availability, and enhanced extracurricular opportunities.

School Funding Research Confirms How Much Money Matters

There’s also a very strong research basis to support increased school funding – a research basis at least as strong as, if not stronger than, that behind practically any other education policy proposal.  Mehlhorn’s article elevates shaky empirical work from 25 years ago by Eric Hanushek (and work from nearly 50 years ago by James Coleman) to argue that money isn’t particularly important while downplaying the much larger body of more recent and careful research that comes to the opposite conclusion.

In 2012, Baker reviewed dozens of newer, higher-quality studies pertaining to this topic (Mehlhorn’s article mentions Baker’s review, but doesn’t link to it and paints an inaccurate picture of its findings).  As Baker’s review shows:

[T]here are a few things we can say with confidence about the relationship between funding, resources, and student outcomes:

First, on average, even in large-scale studies across multiple contexts, aggregate measures of per-pupil spending are positively associated with improved and/or higher student outcomes…

Second, schooling resources that cost money, including class size reductions and increased teacher compensation, are positively associated with student outcomes…Further, while there may exist alternative uses of financial resources that yield comparable or better returns in student outcomes, no clear evidence identifies what these alternatives might be…

Third, sustained improvements to the level and distribution of funding across local public school districts can lead to improvements in the level and distribution of student outcomes. While money alone may not be the answer, adequate and equitable distributions of financial inputs to schooling provide a necessary underlying condition for improving adequacy and equity of outcomes.

A new high-quality study by C. Kirabo Jackson, Rucker Johnson, and Claudia Persico comes to the same conclusion.  Mehlhorn’s article also mentions this study, but misinterprets the results; it mistakenly compares the invalid “months of learning” statistic from the charter school research discussed above (which actually represents data on student test scores) with Jackson et al.’s data on completed years of schooling.

In reality, Jackson et al.’s results are much more striking than most results in education research; the researchers argue in EducationNext that, “for low-income children, a 10 percent increase in per-pupil spending each year for all 12 years of public school is associated with roughly 0.5 additional years of completed education, 9.6 percent higher wages, and a 6.1-percentage-point reduction in the annual incidence of adult poverty.”  While they concede in a follow-up piece that increased school funding won’t “eliminate all differences in outcomes by socioeconomic status,” they contend “that a 22.7 percent spending increase is large enough to eliminate the average outcome differences between the poor (those with family incomes below twice the poverty line) and the non-poor (those with family incomes above twice the poverty line).”

The researchers’ claims here are overstated – they’re extrapolations beyond the actual results that, while less misleading than the “months of learning” statistic, are still misguided attempts to help a broader audience understand research findings – but it’s important to note that the magnitudes are very large relative to the results in most education studies.

It’s also worth noting that even Hanushek, who is one of the only researchers who continues to question the importance of school finance reforms, has never said that money never matters (Mehlhorn’s article gets that point right) and has admitted that schools serving more disadvantaged students should receive more funding.

We Can Afford to Spend More on Public Schools

Some skeptics of increased funding, Mehlhorn included, attempt to compare education spending in America with education spending in other countries.  Mehlhorn writes:

The best, though, imperfect way, to understand how well America is spending money on education is look at how much other nations – most-notably highly-touted Finland and South Korea — spend on their schools.

His article then proceeds to pull numbers from an OECD report to argue that Americans spend more on education than people in other countries, which, according to Mehlhorn, makes it “clear that money isn’t the main problem in American public education.”

The problem, however, is that the numbers in Mehlhorn’s piece are cherry-picked; they don’t actually speak to his argument about public K-12 education spending.  As the OECD report notes, the figures Mehlhorn cites include public and private spending on primary, secondary, and tertiary education – that is, college – including but not limited to spending on transportation, meals, school health services, college dormitories, and “private spending on books and other school materials or private tutoring.”

In general, the OECD data shouldn’t be used for cross-country comparisons; it doesn’t count spending the same way in each country and likely makes US spending appear larger relative to spending in other countries than it actually is.  To the extent that the data can be illustrative, however, the appropriate approach would exclude college costs and private spending and focus on K-12 public school spending as a share of the economy (as opposed to using raw numbers; spending as a share of GDP provides a better indication of how much a country spends relative to what it can afford).  Doing so (see Table B4.1 here) indicates that public spending on primary and secondary education in the United States, relative to GDP, is lower than spending as a share of the economy in Finland, the same as such spending in Korea, and slightly below the OECD average.  Again, the data is flawed, but it likely provides a high-end estimate of United States education spending relative to such spending elsewhere.

Mehlhorn’s article also paints an incomplete picture of historical levels of education funding in the United States.  The fact that K-12 spending has risen in inflation-adjusted dollar value terms over the past 45 years doesn’t tell us anything about whether school spending levels are sufficient, and real spending on practically everything has increased in dollar terms since the 1970s; in fact, real spending should increase as our economy grows.  A more appropriate (though still imperfect; one flaw is that it’s not adjusted for changing demographics) look at K-12 public education spending in the United States reveals that we are spending approximately the same amount relative to the size of our economy that we were several decades ago.

What’s more, K-12 education funding has declined significantly even in real dollar terms in recent years; during the 2014-2015 school year, 35 states were still providing less total state and local per pupil funding than they had been providing before the Great Recession.  Title I funding for low-income schools and special education funding have also fallen since 2010.

Finally, it’s important to remember that even if aggregate funding levels were higher, aggregate numbers don’t speak to the distribution of funding.  We’ve yet to target and sustain increased funding in schools that serve our neediest students.  Especially when it comes to low-income areas, America definitely can – and should – invest more in K-12 public education.

We Should Avoid False Choices and Invest in Kids’ Opportunities

Increased funding, to be useful, must of course be spent in smart ways.  Money by itself isn’t a panacea.  But it’s important to get the facts right: money matters, and it matters quite a bit.

It is incredibly counterproductive to pit increased funding and smart spending against each other (though Mehlhorn’s piece acknowledges “that money spent properly can be helpful in improving achievement,” it balks at the idea that schools need additional funding), especially when schools serving the most disadvantaged students tend to get the fewest resources.  Giving schools more money and making sure they spend that money wisely are complementary, not competing, goals.

Pitting education funding against social insurance and safety net spending, as former Tennessee education commissioner Kevin Huffman did in a recent article, is also absurd.  While it’s true that adequate income support and health care matter most for low-income students and that school-based reforms cannot, contrary to Huffman’s assertion, “be the lynchpin of social mobility in America,” schools are still very important.  Those truly committed to an equal opportunity agenda should stop taking potshots at its components and start getting to work on raising the revenues necessary to implement it.

As David Kirp wrote recently about pre-K programs: “Money doesn’t guarantee good outcomes, but it helps…In education, as in much of life, you get what you pay for.”

In America right now, we unfortunately don’t pay for the education system our students deserve.  Until we do, we won’t get it.

Update (11/5/15): Mehlhorn has written a new article that is supposed to be a response to this piece but that barely attempts to rebut any of the actual claims in it.  Instead, its argument is mostly that the factual errors and omissions that I discussed above are unimportant.

I’ve already explained why many of the article’s sections are misleading, particularly those about the school-funding and charter-school research (Mark Weber has also chimed in on charters), and I’m confident that the vast majority of education researchers (and others who have read the research in question) will agree that my summary is more accurate.

There are a couple topics that are worth slightly more discussion:

1) Mehlhorn devotes a lot of space to attacking Bruce Baker for editorializing. Baker certainly does have strong opinions, but I actually think it’s nice that he’s transparent about his perspective – all researchers have biases, and it’s in many ways preferable to know about them upfront.  Baker’s work is strong and consistent with other recent research.  The research Mehlhorn relies on – from Eric Hanushek, a member of the Right-wing Hoover Institution (note that Mehlhorn does not once mention Hanushek’s affiliation and biases) – is typically much older and a clear outlier (as I explained above).

2) David Dayen recently wrote an excellent piece about why citations of raw numbers for government spending – of the type that appear in Mehlhorn’s piece – are misleading.  I highly recommend it.  Mehlhorn is also mistaken about historical trends in real (inflation-adjusted) spending outside of education; as a quick look at the data for some of the categories he mentions (like certain technologies or defense) confirms, spending on (which is different than prices of things in) these categories has also grown over time (though by different amounts than education spending and not on a per capita basis for defense, which it would have been fine to point out).

One fair point Mehlhorn does make is that inflation-adjusted spending levels have value.  I used spending as a share of GDP above to note that the US spends less on education relative to what we can afford than many other countries and that our education spending relative to what we can afford hasn’t changed much over time.  Those facts in and of themselves don’t necessarily mean that our spending levels are insufficient; they just show that our investment in education is consistent with historical and international norms.  But while it’s fine for Mehlhorn to note that per-pupil spending in the US is up significantly in real terms since the 1970s, that also doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about whether spending levels are sufficient.  We may have been spending way too little in the 1970s, and we still may be spending way too little now.

In any case, Mehlhorn’s note that education spending has increased more than test scores doesn’t say anything, by itself, about the efficacy of that spending.  Student test scores are influenced more by outside-of-school factors than by school-based factors and it’s impossible to know how effective an intervention was without knowing what would have happened in the absence of the intervention.  Maybe test scores would have fallen if spending had remained flat.  We don’t know.  What we do know is that studies that attempt to identify a counterfactual, like Jackson et al.’s, indicate that increased school funding makes an important difference.

As I’ve repeatedly noted, money also has to be well spent.  But while increased funding for schools serving the neediest populations is not sufficient, it is necessary.

Update 2 (5/1/16): Mehlhorn wrote two additional pieces on this topic, one of which repeated most of the errors in his first “rebuttal” and the other which attacked Baker. He has insisted on Twitter that these pieces are fair.  In truth, anyone stumbling across them will be wildly misled.  After Mehlhorn commented on another blog post I wrote about a different topic, I made him an offer: I would catalogue exactly why I find his responses in this exchange to be disingenuous, and we would sit down and chat in person before he wrote anything else on the topic.  Mehlhorn agreed.

The piece linked below reviews in detail five areas in which Mehlhorn has continued to distort the facts and/or gotten them completely wrong.  There are reasonable disagreements to be had on school funding issues, but these aren’t some of them.

Mehlhorn’s mode of argument has often been to claim point X and cite “facts” A, B, and C to back X up.  When I show that A is wrong, B is misleading, and C provides incomplete information, Mehlhorn says, “X is still true.  So what if A, B, and C weren’t support for it; look at D and E.”  When I then show that D and E are misleading, Mehlhorn pivots to point Y and accuses me of disagreeing with Y throughout our earlier conversation.  I don’t think this approach constitutes good faith engagement.

I actually enjoy the discussions I’ve had with Mehlhorn in person thus far and hope that the conversation following this update goes well.  I also hope he will update his prior pieces with transparent corrections that note that the pieces were initially riddled with factual errors (knowledge about the evolution of articles is informative for readers).  It is perfectly fine for him to still disagree on certain points, and I would still be happy to consider any legitimate arguments he makes in the future (as I did in the update above).

Without further ado, here is the description of the errors he should correct.

Update 3 (5/3/16): Mehlhorn and I had a good conversation and he has posted a new piece that contains some clarifications of his positions.  I very much appreciate his engagement and his willingness to hash things out in person.  I also learned from the discussion myself.  Many of Mehlhorn’s conclusions are still off-base, I believe, and he hasn’t corrected all of his earlier errors yet, but since we’ve debated this issue at length already and he has made a good-faith effort, I’ll leave it here for now.

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Informed Student Advocates Pursue Reforms that, Unlike Vergara v. California, Actually Address Inequity

Judge Rolf Treu just ruled in favor of Students Matter in Vergara v. California, deeming teacher permanent status (commonly called “tenure”), due process protections for teachers with permanent status, and seniority-based layoffs unconstitutional.  Treu’s opinion unfortunately reflects a misunderstanding of education research and teacher employment law’s effects.  His decision also erodes labor protections without increasing the likelihood of an excellent education for students in low-income communities.

Reformer excitement about the ruling demonstrates how successfully the plaintiffs have conflated teacher employment law with the existence of ineffective teachers.  Informed advocates for low-income students and communities, on the other hand, are deeply disappointed because both ethical considerations and a thorough analysis of the case indicate the error in Treu’s findings.

The California Teachers Association (CTA) plans to appeal the decision and higher courts will hopefully see through the plaintiffs’ weak case.  No matter the appeal’s outcome, Treu’s opinion raises two issues considerably more significant for low-income students than teacher dismissal and layoff procedures:

1) Teacher evaluation and support practices: Treu wrote that 18+ months of employment is not “nearly enough time for an informed decision to be made regarding the decision of tenure,” arguing that administrator fear of permanent status deprives “teachers of an adequate opportunity to establish their competence.”  He wants “to have the tenure decision made after” California teachers finish BTSA, an induction program teachers must complete to clear their credentials, and he suggests a timeline of three to five years.

Treu is correct that some ineffective teachers are currently retained and some good teachers are currently dismissed under California’s system, but he’s wrong about the primary reason why.  Instead, inadequate approaches to teacher evaluation and a lack of quality teacher support have long hindered the development and retention of excellent teachers.  Nearly two years is far longer than a supervisor should need to evaluate teacher performance and potential for growth if evaluation systems provide frequent opportunities for meaningful feedback and support about specific teacher practices.

Unions and many reform organizations actually agree about the goals of teacher evaluation.  The New Teacher Project (TNTP), for example, believes that “the core purpose of evaluation must be maximizing teacher growth and effectiveness, not just documenting poor performance as a prelude to dismissal.”  Similarly, CTA believes that “the purpose of an effective teacher development and evaluation system is to inform, instruct and improve teaching and learning; to provide educators with meaningful feedback on areas of strength and where improvement is needed; and to ensure fair and evidence-based employment decisions.”  Though reformer support for the use of standardized test score results as a percentage of teacher evaluations may decrease teaching quality and detract from student learning, TNTP and CTA also agree about many areas in which evaluation practices need improvement: the training administrators receive on how to give meaningful feedback, the quality of professional growth plans and professional development opportunities, and the frequency and length of classroom observations.

Extending new teachers’ probationary periods indefinitely will not address the underlying causes of the problem Treu identifies.  In fact, the argument that two years isn’t “nearly enough time” implicitly grants license for administrative incompetence and practices that inadequately address new teachers’ professional needs.  Education stakeholders committed to developing and identifying great new teachers should instead pour their time, money, and energy into aligning evaluation and support systems with their goals.  San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) and the San Jose Teachers Association (SJTA), for example, have invested in administrator training, evaluative consulting teachers with content-area teaching expertise, evaluation documents that more accurately define effective teaching and require narrative feedback, a Teacher Quality Panel consisting of both teacher and administrator members, and non-evaluative instructional coaching support.

2) School funding: Treu’s ruling erroneously considers Vergara v. California part of a historical record of education-related court cases including Brown v. Board of Education, Serrano v. Priest, and Butt v. California.  These three cases, unlike Vergara, dealt with undebatable and direct inequities in access to educational opportunity for low-income and minority students: segregated schools (Brown), inequitable access to school funding (Serrano), and inequitable access to a full school year (Butt).  Treu fails to note that, despite the Serrano case and the advent of California’s new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), major inequities in education funding persist in California today.

In 2012-2013, for example, SJUSD received approximately $9,000 per pupil in revenue.  During the same year, Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) received about 60% more money per pupil, approximately $14,500.  While California guarantees a certain amount of annual funding called a “revenue limit” to every school district in the state, some districts, like PAUSD, bring in property tax revenues that exceed the revenue limit.  These “basic aid” districts keep their excess property tax revenue and often pass parcel taxes that further increase the funding discrepancy between lower-income districts and their higher-income basic aid counterparts.

More funding is not a panacea for low-income schools – how districts spend their money determines its return – but research is clear that funding matters a great deal.  Politicians who cut education-related spending for poor communities often cite a 33-year-old study by Eric Hanushek to oppose equitable school funding, yet even Hanushek himself cautiously supports it.  Asked in a 2006 interview if “it’s a good idea to give very high-poverty districts more funding per pupil than an average district,” Hanushek responded: “I think so. I think you have to provide extra resources and help for kids who start at a lower point because of their backgrounds.”  It’s impossible to support educational equity and justify the funding discrepancy between SJUSD and PAUSD.

One of the most important provisions of the LCFF – the supplemental funding it provides to districts that serve high numbers of English language learners, students from low-income families, and students from foster homes – moves California in the right direction.  However, basic aid districts that have long been able to afford better resources for students will continue to exist.  Based on the case history Treu cites, one could construct a very strong case that the existence of basic aid districts violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the California Constitution.  Advocates for low-income students could also make an indirect equal protection case about Proposition 13’s effect on school funding disparities.  Unlike Vergara v. California, these cases could continue the tradition of Brown, Serrano, and Butt by remedying a clear instance of educational inequity.

Treu’s ruling also invites an analysis of the definition of appropriate due process.  The judge asserts that “[t]here is no question that teachers should be afforded reasonable due process when their dismissals are sought,” but he claims that current protections for teachers with permanent status constitute “uber due process.”  Treu proposes replacing teacher dismissal law with the rights guaranteed by the decision in Skelly v. State Personnel Board; because of Skelly, permanent employees facing dismissal must receive “notice of the proposed action, the reasons therefor, a copy of the charges and materials upon which the action is based, and the right to respond, either orally or in writing, to the authority initially imposing discipline.”

In essence, Skelly rights ensure that employers treat permanent employees with some semblance of courtesy and respect.  While Treu asserts that due process considerations are “entirely legitimate,” however, he forgets to mention that probationary teachers do not have Skelly rights; in California, probationary teachers can be non-reelected (fired) without cause.  Treu’s argument is completely contradictory given current law – he simultaneously contends that he believes in the concept of due process and that districts should be able to deprive people of it for three to five years.

Labor organizations support Skelly’s basic protections for all employees because of the extensive history of inappropriate employer practices and a belief in treating people fairly.  Due process protections should also include a requirement that administrators adequately support permanent teachers before attempting to dismiss them.  A support-first mindset is not only the most ethical approach, but it’s also important because, as Jack Schneider explains, “you don’t put…effective teacher[s] in every classroom by holding…sword[s] over their heads.  You do it by putting tools in their hands.”  Advocates for workers rights support streamlined dismissal processes for employees who are unwilling or unable to improve; the defendants in Vergara just know that society and schools benefit when employers are required to treat their employees like human beings.

Judge Treu accurately identifies a few key issues in his decision: administrators may struggle to identify quality teaching in fewer than two years, layoffs may deprive schools and students of stellar teachers, and teacher employment law may fail to grant teachers an appropriate amount of due process.  Unfortunately, Vergara v. California neither improves teacher evaluation and support practices nor rectifies the funding inequities that lead to layoffs and resource cutbacks in districts that serve low-income students.  The decision also ignores the complete lack of due process afforded to probationary teachers and fails to deliver a thoughtful recommendation about how to empower teachers to grow professionally.  Informed, honest student advocates who care more about “providing each child…with a basically equal opportunity to receive a quality education” than about destroying organized labor should therefore hope that an appeals court will reverse Treu’s decision.  In the meantime, they should begin work on reforms more likely to improve opportunities for low-income students.

Note: A version of this post appeared on The Huffington Post on June 13.

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