Money Mutterers

by Kevin G. Welner

Does money matter in K-12 education? It certainly matters to those people who are trying to convince everyone else that money doesn’t matter. That’s one lesson we’ve learned from reading reports produced by America’s network of well-funded free-market think tanks.

Over the past three decades, these think tanks have gained considerable influence. They have done so, in part, by producing generously financed “research” documents that advance their agenda.

Given the money promoting these efforts, it is ironic that one key part of that agenda is the proposition that, for public schooling at least, money doesn’t matter. They contend past increases in funding have not resulted in improved student achievement so policymakers should now resist proposals for more school funding.

Consider a new report, called the “Report Card on American Education,” from the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is an influential organization that provides policy reports and draft legislation to more than 2,400 conservative state legislators.

ALEC’s Report Card purports to show that past increases in per-pupil spending and teacher pay and reductions in pupil-to-teacher ratio “are not going to make the difference in raising American student achievement to international stand-ards.” But they claim of school choice, “Empowering parents will.” If the report were empirically supported and analytically sound, its conclusions would have substantial policy significance.

Naïve Criticism
To examine such empirical and analytical issues, policy centers at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Arizona State University launched the Think Tank Review Project (www.thinktankreview.org) in 2006. The project provides expert reviews of education reports published by selected private think tanks. To date, we have reviewed 17 think tank reports.

The ALEC Report Card was examined by Gene Glass, past president of the American Educational Research Association. He concluded the report’s “ineptness and naïveté in measurement and data analysis have thwarted any attempt to draw legitimate conclusions.”

Beyond problems with extremely flawed methods, the Report Card “ignores, intentionally or unintentionally, the many studies that flatly contradict its findings and conclusions,” Glass said. Contending per-pupil expenditures have increased without improvement in academic achievement, the Report Card makes “no attempt ... to track whether those increasing dollars actually are spent on regular instruction of students.”

To understand why this omission is so important, let’s begin with the report’s claim that even though “per pupil expenditures have increased by 77.4 percent (after adjusting for inflation)” over the past two decades, “student performance has improved only slightly.”

This claim is based on the incorrect assumption schools have the same spending needs now as in the mid-1980s. In reality, school expenditures have increased most on items that are unlikely to show up in standardized test scores, such as special education, dropout prevention, transportation services, health care for employees, school security and free- and reduced-price meals.

Dropout prevention programs offer the best example of the erroneous approach used in the ALEC report. A successful dropout program will keep low-scoring students in school, thus reducing average test scores for the school. The more money spent, the lower the scores.

ALEC’s recent report is hardly the first to claim that “money doesn’t matter” in education. But these claims have been largely discredited. As Glass explains, “researchers without an immoveable agenda have formed a consensus” around a 1996 study concluding that “a broad range of resources were positively related to student outcomes, with effect sizes large enough to suggest that moderate increases in spending may be associated with significant increases in achievement.”

Diverting Attention
Increased and higher-quality resources are, according to this research, associated with educational improvement. And these resources cost money. Why would resources be any less important for education than for medicine, national defense, road building or a think tank’s own promotion activities? To the extent that money has been spent unwisely and inefficiently, this is an argument against flawed practices, not against increased school funding.

Concerns about public school finance equity and adequacy cut to the core of our national democratic commitment. Serious researchers have carefully derived methods for determining needed resources and funding. Think tanks such as ALEC may want to divert the conversation away from solutions and toward a rudimentary discussion of whether money really matters. But reports such as ALEC’s merely request that the media, policymakers and the public blindly trust the findings offered and conclusions drawn. As the Glass review shows, they would do well to refuse that request.

Kevin Welner is associate professor of education policy and director of the Education and the Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado, 249 UCB, Boulder, CO 80309. E-mail: welner@colorado.edu. Alex Molnar, professor and director of the Education Policy Research Unit at Arizona State University, contributed to this column.