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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Funding Opinion

Of Course Money Matters, Now What?

By Rick Hess — October 14, 2019 4 min read
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One of the more frustrating education debates of the past quarter century has been the debate about, as Gary Burtless’s Brookings volume put it back in 1996, Does Money Matter? I mean, it’s tough to think of anywhere else in American life where we’d even have that discussion. If we’re talking about buying a house, choosing a cell phone plan, or paying for preschool, folks on the left and the right sensibly assume that more money makes it easier to afford better options. Of course, money matters.

This is why it’s been so strange to see this strawman hijack the discussion of school spending. In fact, in my experience, school spending skeptics don’t argue that money can’t help—their fear, rather, is that money will be spent on things (like administrative staff and retiree benefits) that they don’t think will make a difference for students. Meanwhile, I’ve found that those calling for more spending will readily (if quietly) concede that of course it matters how those funds are spent. In other words, we’ve spent a lot of time abstractly debating whether money matters, even though everyone agrees that the answer is “yes, but"—and that the “but” turns on whether those funds are spent wisely and well.

The hyperbole has tended to drown out more useful discussion of how to get more bang for the buck. And that’s a question that’s taken on a newfound timeliness thanks to teacher strikes, “Red for Ed,” new ESSA requirements for financial transparency, the costs of teacher health care and pension systems, and the policy demands of a graying population. With that as a backdrop, along with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, I hosted an AEI conference the other day on “How to Get More Bang for the Education Buck” (you can find the event video and the papers here). I won’t try to summarize it all (that’ll be in the Teachers College Press book due out next year) but I thought it worth sharing a few points of interest.

For one, big increases in after-inflation per-pupil spending in recent decades have translated only into minuscule real increases in teacher pay. Indeed, Bryan Hassel, the co-president of Public Impact, pointed out that the share of school spending that funded teacher pay has declined by nearly half, from 50.8 percent in 1969-70 to 30.9 percent in 2015-16. And, of course, teachers need to leave the classroom for administration to see a big salary boost. Hassel argued that the key to addressing this has to be about more than changing the dollar flow and has to include altering the way teaching works. As one possibility, he pointed to Public Impact’s “Opportunity Culture” model, in which teachers can earn much more (with pay raises of 20 percent to 50 percent) by leading teams, reaching more students, and taking on new authority within schools.

Districts usually kick the can down the road when dealing with declining enrollment—they do things like defer maintenance and furlough employees. The problem is that these are stopgaps, and Karen Hawley Miles, president of Education Resource Strategies, argued that such responses accomplish little and ultimately hurt vulnerable students the most. Miles urged schools to instead approach enrollment downturns as an opportunity to re-examine existing budgets and familiar routines. Useful strategies, Miles suggested, include adopting distributed leadership models, shifting teachers to core subjects and early grades, reassigning teachers to leverage experience and enable deliberate teaming, and rethinking schedules to make better use of time. Indeed, a loss of enrollment or funds can serve as an excuse to make significant changes that are otherwise just too hard.

Marguerite Roza, founder of Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab, urged schools and systems to drive spending decisions with a “Would you rather?” test. She noted, for instance, that it can be illuminating to ask teachers whether they’d rather have their current teaching arrangement OR two more students per class along with a $5,000 raise. She observed that education spending always entails such choices, but that we just rarely make them intentional or explicit—so we make decisions without understanding the alternatives. She suggested that the answer is to offer cash alternatives and then solicit feedback. Would parents rather enroll their kid in publicly funded preschool OR receive a check for $12,000? Roza argues that such an approach can expand our thinking, grow information and trust, and add perspective by exploring value to the beneficiary.

A final thought. Joanne Weiss, a former high-ranking Obama official, explained why this topic should be near and dear to educators: “People are not averse to paying more taxes, they just want to know that there’s value attached to it.” For instance, Mike McShane, research director at EdChoice, shared a quick anecdote regarding Superintendent Alberto Carvalho’s two successful bond elections in Miami-Dade County. As McShane put it, Carvalho told him, “I was able to go to voters and make the case that, ‘The last time you gave us money, we spent it well.’ ” Doing that not only ensured that the funds actually served students, he observed, but also helped build support for spending. Perhaps not surprisingly, when the public thinks money is well spent, it’s more likely to provide more of it. That’s a lesson we can all appreciate.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.