Friday, January 19, 2007

The Last Civil Rights Movement, pt. 2 - Census Bureau statistics indicate that for the 2002-2003 school year, Illinois ranked 17th in per pupil public school spending ($8,409), well ahead of neighboring states such as Indiana ($7,948), Iowa ($7,534) and Missouri ($7,262) as well as perennial school spending also-rans as Arizona ($5,672) and Utah ($4,860), but trailing behind states such as Wisconsin ($8,993), Massachusetts ($10,223), New York ($12,202) and the District of Columbia ($13,328), whose student body is nearly 85 percent African American. (Comparable Department of Education figures for total median expenditures per student for the 2002-2003 school year were presented in "Revenues and Expenditures by Public School Districts: School Year 2002-2003," published in November 2005. In that report, total expenditures per student in Washington, D.C. were even higher than those noted by the Census Bureau, a whopping $16,344.) For its part, the Chicago Public School system reported spending $7,967 per pupil on average for the 2002-2003 school year, an amount that increased to $8,786 during the 2004-2005 school year.

Conventional wisdom says to us that the biggest disparities in per pupil spending exist between inner-city and suburban metropolitan schools. But data from a December 2002 General Accounting Office report (GAO-03-234) suggest that there is no consistent pattern of higher per pupil spending between inner-city and suburban schools. The inner city schools that the GAO reviewed generally spent more per pupil than suburban schools in Boston, Chicago and St. Louis. On the other hand, suburban schools in Fort Worth and New York spent more per pupil than the inner city schools. In Denver and Oakland, spending differences between urban and suburban schools were mixed.

Also, the available Census data seem to suggest that the biggest consistent disparities in per pupil spending are between metropolitan schools districts, which have greater racial heterogeneity and rural school districts, which are usually majority white. In any event, there seems to be little relationship between per pupil spending and academic performance, as evidenced by the amount of money spent in Washington, D.C. versus other areas, and the associated performance on standardized tests. The Goldwater Institute’s Vicki Murray, Ph.D., helps us get our heads on straight regarding per-pupil spending and student achievement, as taken from her op-ed piece in the March 27, 2005 Arizona Republic.

Spending rankings tell policymakers even less about what matters most: student performance. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Washington, D.C. spends $15,000 per pupil, the most in the nation, but students there come in dead last on the [National Assessment of Educational Progress]. In 2003, 90 percent of fourth-and eighth-graders in D.C. failed reading proficiency.

This is not a fluke. In inflation-adjusted dollars, per-pupil spending in American public schools has more than tripled since 1959. During that period, standardized test scores have stagnated. If increased spending were a real measure of success, the states would have an "A." But test results indicate otherwise.

Empirical evidence notwithstanding, the good people at the Education Trust pipe up their siren song with a recently published report which hints that much of the oft-bemoaned "achievement gap" is directly related to per-pupil expenditures. The study, entitled "Funding Gaps 2006," graphs interstate disparities in federal per-pupil spending, particularly between rich and poor school districts. And in so doing, the Education Trust study proposes that the federal government should take a larger role in remediating these "inequities."
A more serious effort to narrow interstate inequality requires three main policy components. First, the federal role in school finance must be substantially increased; the federal government cannot buy much equality when it spends only nine cents of every education dollar. Second, because interstate differences in education funding primarily reflect differences in fiscal capacity, federal aid should compensate for differences across states in their ability to support education. Medicaid provides an example of federal aid distributed in inverse proportion to state fiscal capacity. Third, in aiding states with low education spending, federal policy should distinguish between low fiscal capacity and low effort. Where low spending is due to low effort, the primary federal role should be to spur states toward greater effort. Congress could require low-effort states to gradually increase their effort up to a minimum threshold as a condition of receiving significantly expanded federal aid.
More to come...


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