December 12, 2016; New York Times, “The Upshot”

When NPQ recently looked at the impact of how our nation chooses to finance public education on the goal of giving every child an equal chance to succeed, it found it made a big difference:

As important as it is to choose the best curricula or to figure out whether traditional public schools or market-based education is the better strategy, creating a funding mechanism for public education that provides the necessary level of funding for each child is even more important.

Some recent research looking at how states and cities allocate these funds appears to tell us that if we want to help the neediest students, we need to replace our aim of equal funding with one of providing adequate funds based on need.

The New York Times’ Kevin Carey and Elizabeth A. Harris noted, after looking at two recently published studies, that “teasing out the specific effect of money spent is ambiguity to argue that, for schools, money doesn’t matter—and, therefore, more money isn’t needed. But new, first-of-its-kind research suggests that conclusion is mistaken. Money really does matter in education.”

In one study, researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research used NAEP test results to examine how various student groups fared in the more than 20 states that, since 1990, have restructured their school funding formulas. What they found was that targeting spending toward low-income districts, those with greater need, actually resulted in significant improvement. Their research made distinctions between funding reforms that tried to ensure that every child was funded equally and reforms designed to ensure that funding levels were adequate to meet each child’s education requirements. They found only those reforms that were driven by adequacy had impact.

Ten years after a reform, relative achievement of students in low-income districts has risen by roughly 0.1 standard deviation, approximately one-fifth of the baseline gap between high- and low-income districts. […] Our estimates imply that additional funding distributed through court-mandated changes in finance formulas is highly productive in low-income school districts…that state level school finance reforms enacted during the adequacy era markedly increased the progressivity of school spending. They did not accomplish this by “leveling down” school funding, but rather by increasing spending across the board, with larger increases in low-income districts. Using nationally representative data on student achievement, we find that this spending was productive: Reforms increase the absolute and relative achievement of students in low income districts.

The political challenge for policymakers is that positive results were not immediate. Seeing the impact of these efforts will take staying the course for as long as a decade, a difficult position to maintain these days.

In the long run, over comparable time frames, states that send additional money to their lowest-income school districts see more academic improvement in those districts than states that don’t. The size of the effect was significant. The changes bought at least twice as much achievement per dollar as a well-known experiment that decreased class sizes in the early grades.

A second group of researchers working out of Northwestern University and UC-Berkeley came to a similar conclusion using a different measure of impact—“educational attainment, wages, and family income, and reductions in the annual incidence of adult poverty for children from low-income families.” They concluded that when funding to local districts is designed so resource allocation is adequate to the needs of each student, all students benefit.

Improved access to school resources can profoundly shape the life outcomes of economically disadvantaged children and thereby reduce the intergenerational transmission of poverty. Money alone may not lift educational outcomes to desired levels, but our findings confirm that the provision of adequate funding may be critical.

One of this study’s authors, C. Kirabo Jackson, associate professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University, told the Times:

The notion that spending doesn’t matter is just not true. We found that exposure to higher levels of public K-12 spending when you’re in school has a pretty large beneficial effect on the adult outcomes of kids, and that those effects are much more pronounced for children from low-income families.

Educational policymakers can try to raise funds and needed resources in ways not tied mainly to local economic conditions. They can allocate these funds in ways that recognize some children require more funding than others to succeed. But neither strategy will be a complete solution to this vexing problem, and neither is likely to show the kind of immediate results that prove to a skeptical electorate that these policies are on the right track. The true test of leadership comes when we see whether we can make difficult choices and take the time needed for success to come.—Martin Levine