Ben Spielberg is one of my favorite sparring partners on education policy. A former Teach for America alum and onetime staffer for National Education Association’s San Jose Teachers Association, Ben reliably defends the “reform skeptic” position on education reform in a way that is smart and sincere. Most-recently, Ben wrote a column that attempts to rebut what he calls my “completely false” Dropout Nation commentary on school funding. How does he reach this conclusion? By losing track of the subject being addressed. To move the conversation forward, this column returns to the actual question at hand: Should America send more money to schools now, as they are structured today, or should we implement reforms before allocating additional resources?
The evidence is from other nations, and from recent history, is clear: money is not the primary problem facing America’s schools. A growing body of evidence from within the U.S. confirms this point. Since all three of these benchmarks (international, historical, and intra-American) are independent proof points, reform skeptics would need to discredit all three to make their case. Simply put, Ben demonstrates that he cannot persuasively discredit any of them.
How much does the United States spend on education? The starting point, which Ben buries behind a number of tangents, is that America spends more than any society in history. All credible sources tell roughly the same story. Ben did not like the source I used in my first column, so let’s use the National Center for Education Statistics. It reports a $621 billion total national investment in public elementary and secondary schools for 2011-2012.
We spend more than other countries spend, yet get weaker results. The international story has been repeatedly verified: Compared to other nations, the United States spends more on each student, and the students get less. Ben is right that we should try to compare apples to apples, but the best efforts to do so repeat this conclusion. An older, thorough study by McKinsey & Company in 2007, noted that Singapore achieves top performance while spending less per pupil than 27 of 30 OECD countries. More recently, NCES says we spend $12,401 per pupil, about 35 percent more than the per-pupil average for the industrialized world. In case after case, and in study after study, the best school systems do more with less than America and its public education systems.
Ben’s responds that education spending should be measured as a share of Gross Domestic Product, rather than as an absolute number. In this, Ben forgets what we are discussing: whether schools in America have enough money to succeed. His preferred metric – education spending divided by GDP – has uses, but is not relevant to whether schools have enough resources.
To see why, consider that America’s GDP at the start of 1992 was about $9 trillion in today’s dollars. Under Bill Clinton, GDP growth averaged 3.8 percent, while under George W. Bush it fell to 1.6 percent. Imagine a “Clinton scenario” where we had 3.8 percent growth from 1992 until today, and a “GWB scenario” where we had 1.6 percent growth from 1992 until today. The difference in GDP would be $22 trillion vs. $13 trillion. Under these two scenarios, if actual dollars in schools were exactly the same, “education spending as a percent of GDP” would be appear 70 percent higher under George W. Bush. Thus, by Ben’s metric, the fastest way to get school spending right is to tank the economy. [This does, perhaps, explain Ben’s support for Bernie Sanders.]
We spend a lot more than we used to, without commensurate results: America’s schools today spend about 2.5 times per pupil what they spent in 1970, notwithstanding a small per-pupil dip since 2008. Ben acknowledges “the fact that K-12 spending has risen in inflation-adjusted dollar value terms over the past 45 years,” but then waves that away by saying that “real spending on practically everything has increased in dollar terms since the 1970.” That statement is jarringly untrue.
Over that time period, per-unit prices have plummeted in many areas, including appliances, telecommunications, electronics, computers, televisions, and audio-visual devices. Some sectors have taken advantage: for instance, U.S. military spending has increased only 10 percent since 1970, while dramatically improving its comparative and absolute effectiveness. True, declining costs in some sectors have been offset by price increases in other areas, but this overall mix is called “inflation.” By using “inflation-adjusted” dollars, we account for the interplay of cost increases and cost declines. If we ignored inflation, the increase in dollars would be 14 times rather than merely 2.5 times.
Results for America’s schools have improved only slightly since 1970s, despite spending more than doubling. At face value, this suggests that funding is not the primary constraint facing America’s schools.
What does the evidence say about comparisons within the USA? The comparisons within the United States are a bit more complicated, but again relief comes by simply remembering what we are debating: should we spend more money in the existing system, or should we only add resources after choice and data reforms? With that as context, we can review the available evidence.
The conclusions of Stanford’s Hanushek and NBER’s Jackson, Johnson, and Persico: Ben cites a 2015 National Bureau of Economic Research paper by a team led by Kirabo Jackson which assessed the effects of court-mandated school funding increases on student results in the 1970s and 1980s. In the spirit of helping Ben and other reform skeptics stay focused on relevance, let’s just take everything that Jackson et al. state at face value:
1. Their result establishes a caveat to established prior research that money does not usually drive better student outcomes. As they wrote, prior national studies “found little association” between spending and results, citing reports dating back to the Coleman Report of 1966 and includes studies by Stanford’s Eric Hanushek, Julian R. Betts of University of California, San Diego, and Jeffrey T. Grogger of University of Chicago.
2. The Jackson study shows results from a narrow fact set, in which short-term spending increases were disproportionately used to benefit student instruction. They explicitly note that this is not typical for K-12 spending increases: “how the money is spent matters a lot,” and “our evidence suggests that exogenous spending increases went toward more productive inputs than endogenous spending increases.” This comment supports the hypothesis of education reformers: that additional resources for public schools will be quickly captured by the K-12 bureaucracy rather than being spent on behalf of students. Again from Jackson and his team: “money per se will not improve student outcomes” because, for instance, “using the funds to pay for lavish faculty retreats will likely not have a positive effect on student outcomes.” This directly mirrors the anecdote that headlines my original piece, in which the Fairfax County Public Schools’ lobbying campaign for additional funds omitted the fact that school leaders had just voted themselves a 60 percent pay increase.
3. The Jackson fact base also reveals diminishing returns to funding increases. In other words, an extra dollar in 1970, when schools spent $4,500 in today’s dollars, might have a lot more impact than an extra dollar today, when schools spend more than twice as much. This was pointed out by Hanushek in his response to their study that “by implication, spending today might be expected to have a much smaller impact than they estimate.” Jackson team’s conceded that: “Indeed we find that this is the case in our study. Areas with the lowest initial spending levels were also those for which increased spending had the most pronounced positive effect.”
Let’s review to make sure we don’t lose track of the argument. Even if we only use the words from the authors of Ben’s best evidence, we can conclude three things: First, that the Jackson study is an exception to substantial scholarship in the other direction. Secondly, that their study is limited to a specific type of spending that is atypical in K-12 budgets. And finally, that their study is based on data from a much lower initial starting point, and their own results suggest that adding money today might have a substantially diminished result.
The conclusions of Professor Bruce Baker: Even more than Jackson and his team., Ben relies heavily on articles published by Bruce Baker of Rutgers University’s Graduate School of Education. This reliance is common among reform skeptics, as Baker reaches the most anti-reform conclusions to be found within mainstream academia. Particularly cited by Ben is Baker’s 2012 editorial published by the Albert Shanker Institute in which he writes that “by the early 2000s, the cloud of uncertainty conjured by Hanushek in 1986 had largely lifted in the aftermath of the various, more rigorous studies that followed.” Baker justifies this claim largely by citing Northwestern University’s Larry Hedges, who re-reviewed Hanushek’s studies “quality control measures.” Reading Baker’s paper by itself, it is understandable why Ben finds a clear academic consensus that money matters.
The problem is that Baker omits so much that his conclusion borders on outright mendacity. For instance, Baker chooses not to mention that Hanushek wrote several peer-reviewed rebuttals to Hedges’ work. One of Hanushek’s responses could have been written with Ben in mind: “Hedges, Laine, and Greenwald commit the larger error of asking the wrong question. This problem tends to get lost in their statistical manipulations and their zeal to overturn prevailing conclusions about the effectiveness of pure resource policies in promoting student achievement.”
A later paper from Hanushek goes into great detail about how Hedges and company “misinterpret the implications of their analysis [and,] through a series of analytical choices, systematically bias their results toward the conclusions they are seeking.” While Hanushek’s rebuttal is devastating, the more important point is that Baker simply pretends it does not exist – he paints a story of academic consensus that is entirely false.
In assessing Baker, it is worth noting that serious education researchers tend to not even mention Baker. Jackson and his team, for instance, write an entire paper that “money matters”, and don’t once mention Baker’s 2012 editorial. Rather, they refer to studies from 1995 and 1996 (which Baker ignores) that school spending doesn’t lead to better results.
The reason Baker gets so little play in serious education academia is because he writes editorials, not studies. His analyses are designed to achieve his intended results, and he does this by making subjective and one-sided decisions about what to include and what to ignore. [This is a point Dropout Nation Editor RiShawn Biddle hit upon four years ago.] This is expected for expert witnesses at trials, but it is disturbing for someone who pretends to be an academic, and is not transparent that he gets paid for reports by parties with a direct financial stake in his outcomes.
This problem was underscored in a 2011 tape-recorded conversation in which Baker said he would play with data, manipulate the questions he asked, and “pull things in and out” of his models “to tell the most compelling story” in exchange for a substantial research grant. This telephone conversation, including Baker’s own partially exculpatory comments, appears in full at about the 3-minute mark of this video clip. [Baker offers a rather lengthy explanation and defense of what happened.]
None of this automatically invalidates Baker’s conclusions, but most of his research suffers the same kinds of glaring deficiencies I just mentioned regarding his 2012 Shanker Institute paper. Some day, someone may decide to write a point-by-point review of Baker’s editorials, but for now the main point is to take his sweeping anti-reform conclusions with a heaping of salt.
The evidence about charters: The next category of arguments from Ben relates to charter schools. I argue that charter schools deliver better results for urban students in poverty, without spending more money. If true, this establishes yet another independent proof point that school spending is not the primary barrier to educational opportunities for our poorest children. So, is it true?
Well, it seems clear that charters spend less than traditional district schools, or at least do not spend any more (on average). In my first post, I started with an NCES report from 2011 showing that charters spend $1800 less per pupil. Ben cites Baker to rebut that study, but in this case Baker’s data manipulations only amount to hand waving that spending in the charter sector varies widely (some charters spend more, some district schools spend less), and that data is hard to obtain (because outside spending such as school fundraisers are not consistently tracked). These narrow points may be true, but it is hard to see how they overcome an aggregate gap of nearly two thousand dollars per pupil.
Ben then notes that some successful charter experiments involve new resources, but this is again not an aggregate number, and Ben ignores the many cases where substantial new resources into districts delivered no results. Ben cites work by Roland Fryer that traditional district schools can replicate some charter practices with more spending, but Fryer’s work focuses mostly on practices such as instructional time, data-driven instruction, and cultures of high expectations that have been repeatedly thwarted by unions during negotiations.
In other words, Ben throws a lot at the wall, but nothing sticks to rebut the basic point: Charter don’t spend more than traditional districts and their schools.
Ben then takes issue with the growing consensus that charters work, by stating that students in urban charter schools “perform just about as well” as students at district schools. He rests this claim on the fact that, on average, black students in poverty perform eight hundredths of a standard deviations better in math and six-hundredths of a standard deviation better in reading when they are in charter schools, while the numbers for Hispanic students in poverty are, respectively, seven-hundredths and thirty-five hundredths of a standard deviation.
I address the significance of these numbers in a long exchange with another reform skeptic, Mark Weber, on Weber’s site. Suffice to say, these average differences matter a lot given that (a) they occur every year, and (b) they are national averages that include jurisdictions that have terrible charter authorizers and terrible charter schools. Additionally, the evidence is very strong that the proliferation of charter schools tends to improve the performance of traditional district schools, perhaps because of healthy competition and the spillover of innovation.
If Ben is sincere in his claim that it matters how money is spent, he should stop nit picking the pro-charter evidence that becomes stronger every few months, and demand that school systems embrace charters before getting new resources.
Other random stuff Ben throws out there: Finally, I should address some other broad fallacies that Ben uses as distractions from the central question of whether schools have adequate resources.
Ben cites yet another editorial by Baker that argues that school funding is not currently equitable. In addition to the fact that Baker’s report is just as flawed as Baker’s other work, the entire argument is actually irrelevant. The question is whether we should add more money to schools prior to demanding choice and accountability. Choice is far more unequally distributed than financial resources; almost every school district in the country gets baseline financial resources, but the vast majority of parents in residentially segregated areas have effectively zero school choice.
Ben also concludes by saying that our country can afford more. In a sense, this is true. If we cut wasteful agricultural subsidies, or had a more efficient tax system, or returned to the Clinton-era policies that delivered 3.8 percent growth per year, we could afford a lot of things. We could afford to establish a colony on Mars; or dramatically expand public transit; or increase research into nuclear fusion; or eliminate taxes on people earning less than $100,000 per year. The one thing we cannot afford to do, and that no society or family can afford, is to throw away resources in areas that don’t matter.