The DeHavilland Blog

Friday, September 29, 2006

Is money the answer?

I was reading PEN's newsblast last week, a summary of reports and articles regarding education (an excellent resource, by the way - well worth subscribing to), and something struck me odd about the first few entries. And then I caught on:

And it believes the quest for educational excellence means that more money has to be spent on public schools -- to reduce class size, attract better teachers, modernize school infrastructure, provide more preschool and afterschool programs, and help lagging schools meet NCLB requirements.

The piecemeal, underfunded initiatives that exist at present are inadequate to the need. We need a national, systemic, adequately funded program to develop the capacities of our teaching corps.

Strengthening opportunity requires greater, and more effective, investments in education, especially for America’s youngest children.

Sensing a theme here?

I can certainly appreciate a desire for more resources. But it does seem as if every solution proposed for fixing or improving public education requires massive amounts of new funding. I don't see that as happening, for two reasons:

First, more money has historically not made an impact on student achievement. According to the US Department of Education, education spending has increased from $4,479 per student in 1971 to $8,745 per student in 2001 (and yes, that's in inflation-adjusted dollars). In that same time frame, NAEP scores among 12th graders - the end result of our education system - have essentially stood still: from 1971 to 1999, reading scores have gone from 285 to 288; math scores have gone from 304 to 308; and science scores have gone from 290 to 295. So we have almost doubled our spending per student and seen virtually no return on that investment. This makes it extremely difficult to make a case for new funding.

Second, as Andrew Rotherham of Education Sector (also known as The EduWonk) has observed, we're not likely to see large increases in education funding in the future. The public is getting older, with fewer ties to public education (and therefore less incentive to approve new funding); the fiscal situation at the federal and state level (deficits and an appetite for tax cuts) makes significant new spending unlikely; and shifts away from once-powerful coalitions has weakened the opportunity for political action.

Given that there is no historical correlation between per-student spending and student achievement, coupled with the shifting demographic/political landscape, it's unrealistic to think that waves of new funding are going to wash over us.

We can therefore choose one of two paths:

  • Continue proposing reforms that require major new spending, secure in the knowledge that they will never happen.
  • Find ways to change education that have little to no capital requirements, or that redirect ineffective current spending to more productive ends.

One makes you a martyr; the other makes you a reformer. Which will you choose?

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