The dramatic transformation of how California’s schools are funded is raising one of the most complex and challenging questions on the education policy landscape: Will additional money improve student academic outcomes?
The debate has been raging for decades – at least back to the landmark 1966 Coleman Report, a massive study headed by sociologist James Coleman for the U.S. Office of Education, which concluded that external factors such as parental income and education and resources in the home had a far greater impact on student achievement than levels of funding and any number of school programs.
The new funding plan championed by Gov. Jerry Brown and approved by the Legislature last summer will funnel additional money to school districts and charter schools based on the number of low-income students, English learners and foster children they serve. The extra funds are based on the argument that it costs more money to educate children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and with additional support, students will in the long run do better.
However, the school funding plan does not specify where or how districts must spend their funds. In fact, a central feature of the plan is to give school districts unprecedented local control over the money they receive from the state, in the belief that they know better than Sacramento what approaches will work best for their children.
The pressure will now be on those school districts to show that the infusion of funds will contribute to better academic outcomes.
Relieved of numerous state mandates known as “categorical programs,” school districts now have greater freedom to decide how to spend additional state funds they will receive. They will have a choice to spend their funds in any number of ways, such as expanding preschool classes, reducing K-3 class sizes, hiring more counselors or teacher aides, repairing aging buildings, giving cost-of-living increases to teachers, or rehiring staff laid off during the brutal budget cuts they were forced to make over the past five years.
However, research shows there is a complex, and uncertain, relationship between how much money a district, school or state spends and how well their students do on standardized tests. The most comprehensive and well-regarded study of school finance in California, called Getting Down to Facts, headed by Stanford University professor Susanna Loeb, concluded that “the relationship between dollars and student achievement in California is so uncertain that it cannot be used to gauge the potential effect of resources on student outcomes.”
The Getting Down to Facts project furthermore said there was “essentially no relationship” between how much California spent on its students and a school’s Academic Performance Index, which until now has been the main way schools’ effectiveness in improving academic outcomes has been measured. “If additional dollars were inserted in the current system, there would be no reason to expect substantial increases in student outcomes related to state goals,” Loeb and her colleagues concluded in their 2007 paper.
On the other hand, Rutgers University Professor Bruce Baker, in a 2012 paper titled Revisiting the Age Old Question: Does Money Matter in Education? published by the Albert Shanker Institute contends that “on average, aggregate measures of per pupil spending are positively associated with improved or higher student outcomes.”
Another Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond also argues that money does make a difference. Research, she says, shows clearly that “more equitable allocations of school resources could substantially reduce the failure rates of students of color and low-income students on the high-stakes measures that states have chosen to hold students and schools accountable.”
But in her 2010 book The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future, Darling-Hammond acknowledged that “not all kinds of spending improves student achievement.” Rather, it must be targeted in areas that research shows have the greatest impact on student achievement – ensuring that they have effective teachers. Citing a University of Chicago report that looked at 60 studies, Darling-Hammond, who is also chair of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, noted that “spending on teacher education was found to be the most productive investment for schools, outstripping the effect of teacher experience and reduced pupil-teacher ratios.”
As local educators try to figure out how best to spend the funds at their disposal, it would make sense for them to look at what investments the most compelling research shows will result in the best academic outcomes and target their funds accordingly.
It is up to those who who know the research best – education researchers themselves – to sift through the research and provide guidance to local districts about what investments of funds are likely to yield the greatest educational returns. This will be critically important information not only for local school leaders, but also for parents, school personnel and community members who have been given an expanded role in providing input to school boards on how to spend the additional state funds they will receive.
For these latest reforms to work, a key will be to target funds where they will make the most difference – rather than spend them in a scattershot fashion in the hope that they will produce results, with no guarantees of success.