The class I’m teaching this semester ends with students in groups facilitating half of the course time for the final two weeks of the semester. One of the groups chose to look at school funding and opted for the text Does Money Matter?: The Effect of School Resources on Student Achievement and Adult Success edited by Gary Burtless. The answer to the question posed in the title is essentially, no. That the authors leave it there without going in to an explanation of the many alternative funding sources affluent schools have, the fact that resource allocation is dependant on capital to accrue resources, marks this text as one pushing the right-wing claim that increased school funding will not help struggling schools.
The text relies on macroeconomic methods of analysis. The various authors make claims based on the same NAEP test score data and almost all reach the conclusion that at the school level, per-pupil spending does not significantly impact student performance or income later in life.
They do concede, however, that at the district level they do see a correlation between per-pupil spending and student performance. Still, this text plays into the hands of “school choice” advocates pushing for more charter schools and other alternatives to public schooling. It further plays to conservative voters who begrudge their tax dollars going to fund public education.
At the state level most tax dollars go to education. Some states, California is perhaps the best example, have a system in place that holds constant district funding across every district in the state. How then can some schools in California have immaculate facilities and programs while others rank in the lowest quartile of schools in the nation? Because money does matter for schools.
This text misses a critical aspect of school funding. Schools require capital to pay for things, implement new programs, build facilities, and everything else imaginable. To make the case that funding is not a part of schooling is idiotic. What ought to come out of these studies is the understanding that we must be more deliberate with how funds are spent at the school level. A move away from lowering teacher to student ratios in favor of increasing funding for literacy materials, extra-curricular activities, and fine arts programs would tap into areas for school improvement with known benefits to boosting not only student test scores but also college attainment.
I was happy that the class last night came to the conclusion that the text was leaving something out of the argument. Do not be fooled by economic data of correlations: the poorest schools, with the poorest families attending perform the poorest on NAEP and other standardized tests. What we must work towards now is better resource allocation and more specific articulations of what schools can do with their funds to help their students best.