During the recent Kansas debate over a school funding, a common question was whether more money will improve student results. Kansas courts have essentially agreed it does, based on multiple Kansas cost studies, evidence at trial, and past results.
There is growing evidence from national researchers to back up the link between funding and student success. A new post from Chalkbeat cites four more recent national studies suggesting Kansas can be optimistic that additional funding will improve achievement, especially among lower income students who have more serious barriers to success (as discussed in this previous post).
Daniel Kreisman and Matthew P. Steinburg, in an article in in the Journal of Public Economics, reviewed the impact of a feature of the Texas school finance formula that provided additional funding based on size and sparsity. They found that “a $1,000 annual increase in foundation funding, or 10% increase in expenditures, yields a 0.1 standard deviation increase in reading scores and a near 0.08 increase in math. In addition, dropout rates decline, graduation rates marginally increase, as does college enrollment and to a smaller degree graduation. These gains accrue in later grades and largely among poorer districts.”
Jason Baron of Florida State University, authored a paper exploring school districts in Wisconsin that voted to increase revenues through local referenda. The study looked at districts which narrowly passed an election to provide an average of five percent more per pupil. “These spending increases result in a 25% reduction in the dropout rate, an increase in test scores of approximately 30% of a standard deviation, and a 15% increase in postsecondary enrollment.” It also found improvements in teacher salaries, teacher experience and student-staff ratios.
Four researchers in a paper from the Annenberg Institute at Brown University studied districts in seven states where voters had approved local referenda to raise school operating funds. They found most of this funding was used to raise teacher salaries, rather than hire new staff. The results correspond to higher student achievement in districts with a high proportion of students who quality for free or reduced-price meals; specifically, that “spending an extra $700 per pupil annually for 6-8 years leads to achievement gains of approximately 0.06-0.08 standard deviations.” However, the study did not show achievement effects in districts with lower poverty rates.
Another paper from the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, by Emily Rauscher, studied impact of school construction bonds for capital investment on achievement by socio-economic status. The study suggested that “passing a bond measure increases achievement among low- but not high-SES students. However, these benefits for low-SES students are delayed and emerge 6 years after an election” (a delay which expected due to the time it takes set bonds, construct and occupy a new facility).
These new studies support a growing consensus in the research community that the amount of school funding is important. Several common-sense reasons explain why.
First, decisions about how to use money are made by local school officials who are accountable to parents and voters and want to see results improve. That means they have a strong motivation to make decisions that help students – who, after all, their own children, and those of their friends and neighbors.
Second, teaching – and everything else schools do to support teachers and students – is done by people, and paying people more usually attracts and retains more qualified and effective people.
Third, much of the funding added over recent decades has been focused on helping students with special needs, providing more time for learning, and doing more to keep students safe and healthy. These include special education, all day kindergarten, extra time for students who are behind, health, safety and security staff, increased school meals, and more transportation. Having more funding means districts can hire people to ensure these programs have a positive impact on students.
Fourth, voters have approved funding for newer, larger and safer buildings with more space for services, and better equipment and technology have a positive impact on teachers and students.
Why, then, are there still questions about how or why more money matters in K-12 education?
One reason is that goals, measures and standards keep changing. More credits are now required for high school graduation. During the 2000’s, virtually all educational focus was on raising tests scores – until educators and parents pushed back against narrowing the curriculum and teaching to the test. The Kansas State Board of Education has changed its state assessments several times over the past 30 years and is now raising the expectation from a level that about 75 percent of students currently achieve to a level that less than 50 percent of students achieve.
Another reason is that some expenditures may not have a direct impact on short-term test scores, but are still valuable. Spending more to bus students through unsafe neighborhoods or add security cameras will probably not impact standardized tests next year, but most people would still be supportive – for example, the Kansas Legislature has added $10 million over the past two years for safety and security.
Finally, research shows that a host of factors outside of the school system have a higher impact on student outcomes than anything within the school system; for example, the impact of poverty. Furthermore, student populations are always changing, which must be considered in comparing results. For example, on National Assessment of Educational Progress tests in Kansas both low-income and non-low-income students have shown improvement over the past 15 years. However, because the percentage of free lunch-eligible students (who have lower average results) has grown, the improvement in the overall state average is less than it likely would have been if the population had remained the same.
Three facts remain clear:
- In the long term, per pupil funding for public education has increased more than inflation.
- Schools employ more people per student, have larger facilities and provide far more programs and services for students that ever before.
- Long term educational attainment is at the highest level ever.
Though the research may not be able to give us definitive proof that increasing funding will lead to improved student outcomes, common sense tells us that schools with access to more resources are going to be better equipped to provide adequate and equitable education to its students. These latest studies back that up.