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Myth: Money Doesn’t Matter


 Gene Glass


Put on your green eye visor and sharpen your pencils. When people claim the money spent teaching children doesn’t matter, you have to become an accountant and a statistician for a moment.

Backers of charter schools and vouchers — such as the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation — have reproduced a graph repeatedly that they believe is a big embarrassment to public school educators.

The per-pupil expenditure curve shoots up over the past 40 years from about $3,000 to around $10,000 in inflation-corrected dollars. Superimposed are the National Assessment of Educational Progress achievement curves that limp pathetically along, flat as a pancake, proving educators’ incompetence. But the claim that vast sums of taxpayers’ money have made their way into the pockets of teachers and administrators while achievement hasn’t gained in the least is a bald-faced lie.

Bogus Contentions

The per-pupil expenditure data cited by what my colleagues and I call the Global Education Reform Movement, or GERMs, are bogus. In 1997, Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute effectively dispelled the myth that taxpayers were throwing away money on more of the same. Teachers’ pay grew about 30 percent in inflation-corrected dollars from 1970 to 2000 — a rate of less than 1 percent per year — and most of that growth was because teachers were gaining greater experience and stronger credentials.

Moreover, special education spending in the 1970s was only about 4 percent of the school budget, but by 2000, it was approaching 20 percent. Add to this the growing share of the student population needing English instruction, and it’s clear that public schools today are not your grandfather’s school system.

And what about the myth that achievement is no better today than it was 40 years ago? Another bogus claim.

The enemies of public education who want teachers and administrators to look bad always cite the national average achievement trends for NAEP math and reading. There’s just one thing grossly wrong here. The nation’s school children in 2000 were vastly different from the school children in 1970. The national average achievement trends disguise the important gains in achievement made by each individual racial/ethnic group. The 1970 NAEP data are based on about 80 percent white and 20 percent minority pupils; but by 2000, the percentage of minorities, many living in poverty, had nearly doubled.

This game of comparing a diverse population in the year 2000 with a more homogeneous one 30 years earlier makes use of a disingenuous sleight of hand called Simpson’s Paradox. Although the national NAEP trend in math and reading shows no increase in average achievement scores, every individual racial/ethnic group at every age level has shown NAEP gains from the 1970s to today — in fact, some very large gains.

Take, for example, 9-year-old African-American pupils. This category of pupils is scoring 25 points higher in reading in 2012 than it did in 1971, about two whole grade levels in improved achievement.

Wealth Speaks

Money does matter. Would rich families pay $30,000 and up just for tuition at exclusive private schools if money didn’t matter? Greater investments in public education are bringing greater returns, and not just in achievement test scores. The wealthy and their friends in the conservative think tanks continue to claim that “money doesn’t matter.” Why, then, do they try so hard to accumulate more of it?

Gene Glass is Regents’ professor emeritus at Arizona State University and senior researcher at the National Education Policy Center. He is co-author with David C. Berliner of 50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools. E-mail: glass@asu.edu. Twitter: @GeneVGlass

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