Education Opinion

Follow the Money

By Ronald A. Wolk — February 18, 2005 3 min read
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According to <i>Quality Counts 2005</i>, education leaders and policymakers don’t know what constitutes a good education.

Money! If you ask the people who serve in the public school system, there is never enough of it. Why can’t we improve student performance? Not enough money. Why can’t we close the achievement gap between classes and races? Not enough money. Why can’t we reduce the dropout rate? Not enough money. In fact, they may be right, but who knows?

The United States now spends roughly $500 billion per year on precollegiate public education—more than two and a half billion dollars a school day. Education is the largest single expenditure item or a close second to health costs in most state budgets. The average spent per student in 2001-02 (the latest year for which records are available) was $7,734, but we spent half that amount on some students and twice as much on others.

So how much is enough? For that matter, what do we mean by “enough”? There is no reliable answer to either question. According to Quality Counts 2005, a special report on school finance by Teacher Magazine’s sister publication, Education Week (excerpted in this issue), education leaders and policymakers don’t know what constitutes a good education. Nor can they say with any precision where the education dollar really goes, what it buys, or whether it makes a difference in learning.

The emphasis on higher standards and stricter accountability during the past decade, the passage of No Child Left Behind, and the economic pinch in recent years have increased pressure on states to find answers to these questions. State constitutions stipulate the right of students to a “thorough and efficient,” “adequate,” or “sound basic” education. With the rise of standards-based reform, we as a nation recently have become more concerned about this right. Because states demand that all students meet explicit standards to graduate, they’re obviously obligated to ensure that all students have the opportunity to learn what is required.

Since the 1960s, virtually every state has been forced to defend its school funding formula in court—mostly because of inequity. During the past decade, however, the emphasis has shifted from equity to adequacy. Courts are demanding to know what “adequate” means and how much it costs. In response, 30 states have undertaken studies to determine the content and cost of a “sound basic” education. Sixteen states are in court battling challenges to their current finance systems, and cases in 20 other states have been settled or decided in the past five years—more often than not in favor of the plaintiff. (This past winter, a court-appointed state panel in New York concluded that the state should increase funding to New York City schools by $5.6 billion to provide an adequate education.)

Considering how long we’ve been operating public schools and how much we spend on them, one might understandably be stunned to learn that experts and policymakers don’t know what constitutes an “adequate” education or even agree on the best way to find out. If we can’t define the term, how do we determine what it costs, how funds should be allocated to achieve it, or whether we’re getting our money’s worth in education?

Now, at last, the states have embarked on an effort to come up with a definition, using four approaches: professional judgment, research-based evidence, analysis of successful schools, and statistical models.

Regardless of the tack taken, I suspect that these state-commissioned studies will accept much of the current system as a given and not subject to change—the elaborate curricula, intricate schedules, age-level grades, widespread standardization, and so on. If that’s the case, additional funds will probably be used to continue what we’ve been doing. The system may get more funding and improve test scores incrementally, but we still won’t be spending our education dollars as effectively and efficiently as we must to ensure that all kids will learn.


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