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
Chris Cerf & Co. deserve praise for trying something new in a touchy, costly program area.
New Jersey is trying something new, and promising, to improve the quality of special education in the state. Education commissioner Chris Cerf recently awarded $1M in grants to districts that had the highest absolute performance and highest growth for their special ed students.
The Garden State's implementation of performance-based funding has serious strong points. In a program area that focuses largely on inputs (i.e., the level of funding and staff dedicated to special ed students), these grants shift the spotlight to quality. The initiative also shows how much good a robust data system can do.
The long-term incentives performance-based funding could provide in this area are a little more worrying, however. A variety of children are lumped under the "special education" umbrella, and measuring performance and growth looks very different in each locale depending on the mix of conditions a district's students face. Will school systems with a high proportion of severely disabled students be left behind, even if they're achieving modest gains in a cost-effective way? What about the dangers of over-identifying high-achieving (or high-growth-potential) students to improve the numbers?
The state-level team in New Jersey deserves praise for trying something new in a touchy, costly program area. Stressing quality over increased inputs in
The Beehive State is setting a great example with creative approaches to stretching the school dollar.
Photo by Brian Swan.
The Utah legislature is considering a big move toward student-based state funding of secondary education, allowing students to apply public dollars not only to a variety of public secondary options, but to college courses as well.
Students could choose to spend that money to attend public schools, including charter schools; take public school online classes; and/or pay for courses offered by public and certain private, nonprofit Utah colleges. School districts and other providers would determine how much to charge for classes and that amount would be deducted from student accounts. Students could use any money left in their accounts after high school to continue their educations.
Providing secondary education services is becoming an increasingly complex proposition, as students add community college courses to their workload, explore virtual education options for foreign languages and advanced math and science content, and often try to take advantage of work or vocational ed opportunities.
The bill is currently in committee, and lawmakers may scale the program back to a pilot. Utah has quietly done some very bold things to stretch the education dollar in recent years. Sen. Dan Liljenquist's 2010 pension reform
More money means better outcomes for kids: It's an argument heard over and over in state capitals during budget season and in local newspapers leading up to votes on tax levies. At a recent event on Capitol Hill, Thomas Gais, the director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government, made a similar case, claiming that more state education funding reliably leads to better well-being for children. If only it were actually that easy to improve America's schools!
The main problem with this argument is that we as a country tend to invest the most in kids who are already on track to do well—middle-class and wealthy kids, mostly white, largely found in the suburbs. Many are educated in the "public private" schools we profiled a couple of years ago. I believe that these kids have high "well-being," whatever that term means to the Rockefeller Institute, but it's hard to argue that spending state money on these kids' educations got them to where they are.
America's high-spending, high-poverty districts are the exceptions that prove this rule. Washington, D.C., New Jersey's Abbott districts, and a few others spend breathtaking amounts of money per student, much more than affluent nearby suburbs.
- Stretching the School Dollar
- Common Core Watch
- Ohio Gadfly Daily
- Board's Eye View
- Choice Words
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.