June 7, 2014 in City

Shawn Vestal: Study finds spending money on poorer schools pays off

By The Spokesman-Review
 

A key question regarding schools and money: To throw or not to throw?

As the Washington Supreme Court continues to ride hard on the Legislature’s half-hearted attempts to provide “ample” school funding, one of the chief arguments against spending more – always couched carefully in undying support for schools, of course – is that there’s research that shows school spending is not correlated with improvements in student performance.

C. Kirabo Jackson begs to differ. Jackson is a labor economist and professor at Northwestern University. He and two fellow economists, Rucker Johnson of UC-Berkeley and Claudia Persico of Northwestern, recently delved very deeply into school spending reforms nationwide in the 1980s and ’90s, and came to a conclusion: Throwing money at the problem worked.

OK, so they didn’t put it quite that way. But their working paper, “The Effect of School Finance Reforms on the Distribution of Spending, Academic Achievement, and Adult Outcomes,” was unequivocal about the lifelong results of increased school spending nationwide on children from poor and near-poor families.

And, Jackson said in an interview, “The improvements are more dramatic the larger the spending increase.”

Here’s the way the paper summarized a key finding: “(A) 20 percent increase in per-pupil spending each year for all 12 years of public school for children from poor families leads to about 0.9 more completed years of education, 25 percent higher earnings, and a 20 percentage-point reduction in the annual incidence of adult poverty; we find no effects for children from non-poor families. The magnitudes of these effects are sufficiently large to eliminate between two-thirds and all of the gaps in these adult outcomes between those raised in poor families and those raised in non-poor families.”

The working paper was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private nonprofit in Cambridge, Mass., and the largest economics research organization in the country. These findings contradict other research and used different methods; some studies, for example, compared school funding levels with test scores and found little improvement from increased spending.

Jackson argues that the studies are flawed for a number of reasons, chief among them the demographic problems associated with federal funding for programs such as free lunch. Districts that get the most money for poverty-related programs also tend to have the largest academic gaps and more students who show up already way behind their wealthier peers. The paper’s authors also question the usefulness of test scores alone as a measure – particularly as the sole measure – of whether school spending was effective or not.

They compiled the largest set of district-level data ever used to analyze per-pupil spending between 1970 and 2010, and compared the spending with several different long-term measurements for student performance and lifelong effects. They focused specifically on reform-based spending – money that came into districts specifically for educational programs in response to a desire for more or better school funding.

This was no small task. Twenty-eight states have undergone such financing reforms in recent decades, often under court order and all with different approaches. Many such reforms were aimed at reducing inequalities between districts. Others were “adequacy” reforms, which simply attempted to raise school spending across the board. That’s the current situation in Washington, where the Supreme Court has ordered the Legislature to step up to its constitutional duty to provide education funding that is “significantly more than just adequate.”

Taken together the reforms represented “some of the most drastic changes in U.S. public education since Brown versus Board of Education,” Jackson said. And in almost every case, a major goal was to improve the lot of students from poor families, and to level a playing field that was tilted toward high-wealth districts.

A large part of the research focused on comparing the various types of reforms. Then researchers asked the big question: “What happens to children who are exposed to increases or decreases in spending?”

The researchers studied a sample of 15,000 schoolchildren born between 1955 and 1985, and followed into adulthood through 2011. Researchers compared them based on how long they attended classes before and after the increased spending.

The effects on poor students were dramatic, Jackson said. The more time they spent in classrooms where spending had increased, the better they did. They did better when more money was spent. They were less likely to drop out and more likely to avoid poverty for themselves and their own families. The authors concluded that the school reforms of the past several decades were a major force for improving the lives of the neediest students.

They didn’t do a thing for students who aren’t poor, however. One wonders how much this has to do with resistance to increased school funding; certain folks are convinced that the poor are already getting too much from them. But if they argue that money doesn’t make a difference in the classroom, this research says they’re wrong.

“Many have questioned whether increased school spending can really help improve the educational and lifetime outcomes of children from disadvantaged backgrounds,” the authors conclude. “The results in this paper demonstrate that it can.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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