Stay out of the classroom, Your Honor
How much does an "adequate" K-12 education cost? What about a "reasonable" education? Courts weigh in on these questions regularly; last year alone saw a New Jersey ruling demanding half a billion more in state support for the so-called Abbott districts, as well as a Colorado case that questioned voters' judgment about what constituted appropriate support of a "thorough and uniform" school system. This year brings an interesting new development to the table: New Hampshire voters may tell the state Supreme Court to butt out entirely.
There's a lot to be said for the Granite State's typically libertarian approach.
There's a lot to be said for the Granite State's typically libertarian approach. As the Hoover Institution's Rick Hanushek said to Ed Week after the Colorado ruling, the courts are not a good place to adjudicate the ongoing academic research on the role of school spending in driving achievement. In particular, the record of New Jersey's Abbott districts, the recipients of billions of dollars in additional court-mandated state support since the mid-1980s, is abysmal.
This highlights one of the most fundamental criticisms of activist meddling in school finance systems by courts: quality rarely, if ever, enters the picture. Judges simply assume that poor performance implies inadequate funding, and that layering more money on top of failing systems will improve student outcomes. Anyone in the corporate world who has been through a tough restructuring will tell you that more money serves to hide problems (even fraud and embezzlement) as often as it solves them. Failing school districts have proven this over and over again as they've frittered away funding increases without moving the needle on performance.
States already have an incentive to spend plenty on education.
States already have an incentive to spend plenty on education. Strong, well-funded schools attract workers and businesses. The key question is whether the state pot is divided equitably, not just between rich and poor, but among students in a variety of school settings: district and charter, virtual, voucher, urban, suburban, and rural. On that score, even very high-spending states have not done much to provide robust, demanding education programs across the full spectrum of choices.
If instead funding truly followed every child—without holding traditional providers like school districts harmless or endlessly protecting wealthy suburbs from changes to state formulas—we could move from vague discussions about adequacy to ensuring a variety of high-quality choices for every child.
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About the Editor
Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow
Chris Tessone was a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow and the Director of Finance of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He has strong interests in governance and education finance, especially teacher compensation and school facilities finance.
May 16, 2013