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Will More Money Improve Schools?

The connection between spending on schools and their performance is guaranteed to provoke a heated debate ("It Turns Out Spending More Probably Does Improve Education," The New York Times, Dec. 13).  My view is that more money alone will not do very much.  Instead, it's how and where the money is spent that matters ("Clash Over Connecticut Schools Flares Anew," The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 28).

Two new studies address the funding-performance issue. The first was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.  It found that states earmarking additional money for their lowest-income school districts post greater academic improvement in those districts than states that don't. The second was published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. It found that more money resulted in students staying in school longer and earning more as adults.

But neither study investigated exactly how the money was spent.  For example, was it on higher teacher salaries, smaller class size, or new lab equipment?  Without such information, it's premature to conclude that more money alone is the answer. 

That may be why voters in November largely rejected efforts to increase school spending through ballot initiatives. They've seen little convincing evidence of improved performance to give a blank check to school districts.  For example, a 2014 Cato Institute study found that since 1970 there has been a near tripling of inflation-adjusted spending per child in K-12. Yet the performace of 17-year-olds has been essentially flat across all subjects in that period.

I don't see things getting better if Betsy DeVos is confirmed as education secretary.  Although the federal government contributes less than nine percent of the $600 billion spent on public education, the power of the bully pulpit should not be underestimated.

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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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