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If we spend more, will we get better schools?

In the last 20 years, I've attended so many seminars and read so many reports on school financing I could have earned a college minor by now. However, I remain unresolved on several big questions.

  1. Does more money lead to improved academic outcomes?
  2. Is it wiser to fund schools through the state to assure equity or through locally raised taxes with supplemental funding from the state to minimize disparities? (The latter is basically what Georgia does.)
  3. Should we set a baseline level of resources for all schools but allow communities to exceed that level if they're willing to pay additional taxes? Or should that extra funding be outlawed to avoid the allegation that zip codes unfairly influence school resources?
  4. Is it better to prescribe how spending decisions are made – which Georgia used to do under the contention too much money went to central offices and too little to classrooms -- or should spending be determined by educators on the front lines? (When I mentioned this idea to some teachers, they said it presumed competent principals, which is not always the case.)

Those of us still grappling with how best to fund schools shouldn’t feel so bad. The experts aren’t that certain, either.

I tuned in today to an interesting panel on school financing by the Urban Institute featuring Ary Amerikaner, director, P–12 Resource Equity, the Education Trust, Marguerite Roza, director, Edunomics Lab, Georgetown University, and Daniel G. Thatcher, program director, Education Program, National Conference of State Legislatures.

The consensus: We're still trying to figure out what works and why, what deserves more investment and what deserves less and how to replicate successful outcomes.

Considered a leading national school financing expert, Roza joked she's devoted her lifework looking for an answer that didn't exist. "The amount of money spent on a school does not explain as much variation in outcomes as we would like it to explain. We often see schools spend the same amount of money — even in the same way — and still get different results."

In more than two decades of researching, Roza said she "looked and looked" to figure out that if schools spent funds in certain ways on certain program, they'd be assured a certain outcome. But no clear pathway emerged out of the financing fog.

The only consistency Roza found among schools defying the odds -- doing well with average or less than average per-pupil spending -- was "they were 100 percent committed to leveraging resources to get the greatest outcome possible with the dollars they had."

The Education Trust's Ary Amerikaner was more willing to link higher spending with better outcomes, saying, "It's not a silver bullet, but it matters. It matters more for students who have higher needs, for students living in poverty." And longterm investments matter more than short-term infusions of cash, such as one-time grants, she said.

In answering how much money for schools is the right amount, Daniel Thatcher of the National Conference of State Legislatures recalled the answer a researcher once gave a lawmaker who asked that question: "Whatever you have."

States are constrained by their budgets, which is why legislatures are focused on how they can discern whether the money they send to districts gets to the students and schools that need it, said Thatcher.

That will become easier under a new federal requirement for transparency in spending down to the school level. The granular data mandated by the Every Student Succeeds Act should further the research into the relationship between spending and outcomes.  (Of course, that will depend on whether there is common reporting standards to make sense of the data.)

Some other interesting points from the panel:

While there's been concern that school fundraising by middle-class and affluent parents contributes to the inequities among schools, Roza noted the $100,000 parents may raise at a school auction is a pittance compared to a district budget of $11 or $12 billion. If we want to target inequities, she advised focusing on the uneven investment of public dollars rather than parent fundraising.

In the push to go with state-level funding of schools to promote equity, Roza pointed out taxpayers are more likely to approve local funding initiatives for schools than state ones. (In Georgia, SPLOST is the best example of that.)  Voters are less willing to trust the state. "But when you open those local spigots, " she warned, "you are going to have those inequities."


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.