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Does Money Matter in School Reform?

Asking if money affects educational quality is a little like asking if gravity affects inanimate objects. I say that because in both cases there are many factors that come into play, making the answer more nuanced than it initially appears.

Let's begin by looking at the numbers. In 2007, we spent $11,749 per student annually in grades K-12 in public schools (Statistical Abstract of the United States). To put this into context, between 1970 and 2005, inflation-adjusted per-student spending increased by more than 100 percent (Digest of Educational Statistics).

In actuality, spending on public schools per student is probably considerably higher because school districts do not ordinarily include debt service, transportation costs and employee benefits - the latter of which is presently a source of fierce controversy in California. But let's stick with the low-ball figure since it is well documented. The usual criticism is that greater spending over the years has not improved the performance of students, as measured by standardized test scores. So why continue to throw money at these schools? Once again, let's concede this point since accountability is a reasonable demand.

But I draw the line when reformers make the blunt statement that insufficient funding of schools is being used as an excuse. That's because there's a difference between an excuse and an explanation. To put a human face on what I mean, I suggest reading the Houston Press story about Grissom Elementary in the Houston Independent School District that was published two days before Christmas ("Children of God"). Of the 800 children in Grissom, 300 are homeless. I defy anyone to argue that poverty is an excuse for the school's performance.

In this regard, the Obama administration cites charter schools as an example of what can be done. However, he fails to note that charter schools often receive private financing from hedge funds and other philanthropic groups. The Harlem Children's Zone, among others, is heavily supported by non-public funding. That's one of the reasons it is able to offer its crucial wraparound services. Let's not forget also that charter schools vary widely in quality, often performing worse than traditional schools serving demographically similar students.

But even charter schools are not immune from the effects of poverty. In a front-page story on Jan. 1, the Los Angeles Times reported that some of the more than 900 publicly financed charter schools in California lack the funds to provide nutritious meals - or any meals for that matter ("Charter choices: good food, free food, no food"). Although charter schools qualify for a cash subsidy from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide meals to needy children, they are exempt from a state requirement to serve at least one nutritionally subsidized meal a day. In light of the connection between nutrition and learning, how can anyone argue that poverty is not an important factor?

What's most disturbing in the debate about funding, though, is that almost all traditional public schools across the country are being asked to do more and more with less and less. This is not a matter of cutting fat. It's a matter of cutting essentials that go beyond the obvious like laying off teachers and increasing class size. It includes eliminating janitorial service, art supplies, and textbooks.

Although teachers have been quietly dipping into their own pockets to pay for classroom materials for years, it was only in December that California reached an out-of-court settlement pledging that schools in the state would stop trying to charge parents for expenses not covered by local budgets. Sacramento realized that doing so violated the state Constitution's promise of free public schools.

Even during this protracted recession, however, some districts in the country have been immune to financial pressure. For example, in affluent Allen, Tex., a new $60-million high school football stadium was built after residents passed a special bond referendum with minimal opposition ("A $60 Million High-School Stadium?" Wall Street Journal, Dec. 23). One school board member summed up the matter this way: "We didn't look at the cost. We looked at what we needed."

These words unwittingly make the case that money does matter. The stadium was part of a $120- million high school expansion project, which will include a new auditorium to be used by the music and theater programs. The Allen board member could have also noted that in 1999 a 650,000-square foot state-of-the-art high school (for that time) was constructed for $59 million. It included modern science labs and a television broadcast studio.

In all fairness, the Allen school district received a rating of "Exemplary" by the state. As a result, reformers will use the grade as a justification for the investment. Yet I wonder which comes first: the financial investment or the academic outcomes? Districts serving students from disadvantaged backgrounds can't count on getting residents to pass bond referendums nearly as easily as districts serving privileged students. Parents in the former also don't have discretionary income to set up foundations to contribute money to schools for needed purposes.

None of the above is meant to suggest that parents don't have the right to spend as much as they want on schools for their children. But what about parents who lack the same means? Are their children to be denied the same opportunity simply because of the size of their parents' bank account? There's a matter of equity that is given short shrift in the debate over school financing.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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