Does Money Matter in Schools?By Joseph G. Martin Jr., Benjamin Scafidi
For the Journal-Constitution
Monday, March 09, 2009
YES: Resources must meet greater demand
By JOSEPH G. MARTIN JR.
According to economist Ben Scafidi, former education adviser to Gov. Sonny Perdue, our current educational system is beyond repair. His latest report cites statistics on the relationship between spending and graduation rates over a number of years to prove we are pouring money down the drain.
A little perspective would help. Will Rogers once said, “Our schools are not as good as they used to be, and they never were.” There will always be a clamor for changing our schools, but as we adapt to new challenges, we would be foolish to undermine one of the institutions that has made our nation great.
Factually, the “massive” increase in spending over the last few decades has been fueled by forces that are overlooked once again. Most of these factors are national in scope, but some affect Georgia disproportionately.
Education is a people business, with over 80 percent of all spending going to personnel. There has been a fundamental change in the labor market. The salaries for all teachers have risen, largely because women now have other alternatives in higher-paying careers. Our nation and state are losing much of the “subsidy” that has been contributed by women through artificially low salaries over the years.
Another nationwide trend is the substantial increase in spending for special education. Our schools are now making a serious attempt to educate many children who would have been cast aside in previous generations.
Equally important is the relative increase in the number of students who are more costly to educate, such as the students who live in low-income families or have a first language other than English. More than half of Georgia’s public school students are eligible for free and reduced- price meals, and there has been an explosion in the number of English language learners.
It is fashionable to complain about general administration. With only few exceptions, however, the central office expenses of most school systems in Georgia are incredibly low. These expenses represent less than 5 percent of the total for the entire state.
Some of the increase in costs could be avoided. For example, it is not cost-effective to set rigid limits on maximum class size. Small variances should be allowed to avoid creating new classes that are unnecessarily small, and the reductions in class size should be targeted to the students who would benefit the most. Salary increases should not be uniform, and our schools should not retain any teacher who doesn’t perform well after receiving help.
Nevertheless, the reality is that Georgia’s schools are being starved financially. There is a minimum level of resources that every school must have to function properly. Dedicated teachers, active parents, and effective leaders are essential, but the lack of resources can be crippling, especially in providing the extra support needed by disadvantaged students. Additional investments used wisely can make a significant difference in student achievement.
Despite the need for local discretion, no amount of flexibility can compensate for inadequate resources. Neither can a new wave of reforms. Offering vouchers to those students who are accepted by private schools or can afford the rest of the tuition will not make things better for everyone else.
Scafidi is entirely right in saying the educational results in Georgia, especially our dismal graduation rate, are cause for great concern.
The only way to make meaningful improvements on a sustained basis is to provide greater support to our teachers, remove unnecessary restraints, and raise the expectations for students and teachers alike. It won’t be easy, but it can be done.
> Joseph G. Martin Jr. is executive director of the Consortium for Adequate School Funding in Georgia.
NO: More funds don’t improve graduation rate
By BENJAMIN SCAFIDI
A new, 25-year analysis of education spending in Georgia shows something that many have suspected for a long time. Investing more taxpayer funds in education does not produce greater student achievement. In my recent study for the Center for an Educated Georgia, I found that per-student spending over the last generation (adjusted for inflation) more than doubled in Georgia, while at the same time public high school graduation rates fell.
This dramatic increase in operational spending led to large decreases in class sizes, huge improvements in instructional technology and large increases in administration. But it absolutely did not increase graduation rates over where we were when Jimmy Carter was president and “Urban Cowboy” was all the rage.
No matter how painful, the data from federal and state government sources cannot be disputed. Without agreeing to these basic facts, we cannot have a productive discussion about how to improve student achievement.
In 1990, Georgia students were 41st in national graduation rates. Billions of dollars later, we rank 49th. Although every measure says that Georgia’s graduation rate has increased since 2001 during the state’s so-called budget crisis, when advocates for more spending claimed that the state underfunded education, our graduation rate still remains below where it was a generation ago.
Given these basic facts, it’s hard to believe that even more money would improve student achievement. Remarkably, some believe there’s no end to the amount of funding necessary in public education, despite the lack of productive outcomes.
By contrast, 21 states spend less than Georgia and have higher graduation rates, including three that are highly diverse like Georgia. Arizona spends $2,500 less per student, yet has a graduation rate that is 23 percentage points higher than Georgia’s.
California spends $2,000 less per student, yet has a graduation rate that is 13 percentage points higher than Georgia’s.
Texas spends almost $1,000 less per student, yet has a graduation rate that is 12 percentage points higher than Georgia’s.
Even the Consortium for Adequate School Funding in Georgia, which sued the state for more money, says that it can’t find a relationship between spending and student achievement within Georgia.
We’ve been looking in the wrong places to improve student achievement. We tried massive increases in education spending, but student achievement dropped, no matter how you measure graduation rates. More money is not the answer.
So what can we do to improve student achievement in Georgia? We must increase the productivity of the dollars we are spending. School systems should consider following Gwinnett County and sign flexibility contracts with the state, or becoming charter systems like Decatur and Marietta to allow them to operate without many state rules and regulations.
Groups of parents should start charter schools. School boards should also make changes to provide competition and choice within the public education sector. And the state should allow parents to take the tax money that pays their child’s education to the school of their choice —- even if it is a private school.
Competition and choice are the ultimate in accountability and will lead schools to maximize the quality of the education they offer. Children are different and require different learning environments. School choice will increase productivity and student achievement.
Our top priority should be the best possible outcomes for our kids. Now we know the facts.
It’s time to make some changes.
> Benjamin Scafidi is an associate professor at Georgia College & State University and director of the Center for an Educated Georgia.