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Published in Print: March 1, 2005, as Dollars & Sense

Dollars & Sense

For the first time, the push to quantify achievement is starting to cross over to financial matters.

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Equity. Performance. Accountability.

These concepts all revolve around standards. And, of course, they all require money. With nearly a half-trillion dollars spent on precollegiate education each year, you’d think the accountability push would extend to the financial side of the ledger. In fact, only 22 states and the District of Columbia collect any school-level financial data, according to a policy survey conducted by Teacher Magazine’s sister publication, Education Week, for its Quality Counts 2005 report.

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“Weighing the Merits”

With that in mind, it’s not surprising that 31 states are considering major changes in school funding. Some have no choice, thanks to litigation, though what is surprising is the role classroom teachers often play. As courts have ordered states to adequately finance schools, focus groups of veteran educators have been asked to spell out exactly what’s needed for a sound basic education—and then calculate the costs.

Of course, that cart-before-the-horse approach often conflicts with reality. In Kentucky, for instance, educators recommended in 2002 that the state add five days to the school year, add preschool for disadvantaged 3- and 4-year-olds, and limit class sizes to 15 in K-3 classes and to 20 elsewhere. That sounds great—until you consider the annual $6.2 billion price tag. One adequacy-study expert says of the results that teachers “tend to overspecify—they ask for very small classes and lots of support.”

What Americans Think About School Spending

42% believe “a great deal” or “quite a bit” of education money is wasted. The figure rises to 76 percent after including those who believe “a fair amount” of money is wasted.

62% think that current per-student spending “seems like enough” to provide an adequate education.

48% underestimate the amount of money currently spent per student in public schools—they peg the average at $5,000 or less, versus the U.S. Department of Education’s estimate of $7,734 during the 2001-02 school year, the last year for which specific figures are available.

14% overestimate the amount of money spent per student, believing the average to be $10,000 or more.

61% are “somewhat” or “very” confident that additional funding would lead to improved school quality.

Support for teachers themselves, however, is taking on new meaning in an era of accountability as a handful of states are breaking the longstanding merit-pay taboo by linking raises with student performance. And as standards have made individual teachers and schools responsible for their students’ performance, in some places the funding decisions are also trickling down from the central office.

Naturally, there’s a catch to lessening the top-down approach to school spending. As Lawrence J. Miller, a research analyst at the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, says of the new school-centered focus: “That has to come back and connect to expectations for academic performance.”

Accountability. There’s that word again, and going forward, calls for reform or improved academic performance increasingly will come down to following the money.

Vol. 16, Issue 05, Page 20

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