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Federal Spending and Test Scores

There's very little that gets people riled up as much as the failure of increased spending over the years to noticeably improve test scores. This is particularly the case in today's protracted recession when public institutions are competing for tax dollars. I'd like to try to clarify the issue by focusing exclusively on federal spending because I think it's a bit easier to understand than looking at spending on the state level.

Although it's true that federal spending on K-12 has more than doubled over the past four decades without a significant increase in test scores, the issue is not exactly what it initially seems. To begin with, the lion's share of such funding is Title I, which was part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed in 1965 as a key element in President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty." The expenditure is designed to help improve the education of poor children. It should be obvious that these children require far more financial support than wealthier children as a result of the huge deficits they bring to school.

Over the past three most recent decades, the income gap between the nation's rich and poor families has grown dramatically. Census data show that today one in five children lives in poverty. It's more than mere coincidence that between 1978 and 2008 the difference between the average math and reading test scores of children from high- and- low-income parents increased by one third. Why this would come as a surprise to anyone is beyond me. I say that because in 1966 the Coleman Report found that the quality of schools attended by black and white students has little effect on the difference in average achievement between them. It's not that spending on schools doesn't matter or that teachers don't matter. Of course, both do. But schools are limited in what they can do to affect differences in the rate of progress of students from different socioeconomic backgrounds (Class and Schools, Economic Policy Institute, 2004). In other words, what transpires outside of school plays a huge role in what transpires in school.

At present, federal spending represents about 10 percent of public school budgets ("School Districts Brace for Cuts as Fiscal Crisis Looms," The New York Times, Nov. 16). The Office of Management and Budget and the Education Department estimate that without a Congressional resolution K-12 schools could lose a little more than $2 billion next fall. That may not seem like much, but it would overwhelmingly affect the poorest children because of Title I. I can understand the frustration felt by many taxpayers about the snail's pace of test score improvement for this group. Yet I think it's unconscionable to reduce support.

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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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