Why funding matters in improving education, and how we know

Why funding matters in improving education, and how we know

After nearly a decade when funding for Kansas school districts struggled to keep up with inflation, the Kansas Legislature significantly increased school funding for last year and the current school year and put in place scheduled increases over the next four years that are expected to be higher than inflation.

The Kansas Supreme Court last summer basically accepted the Legislature’s method of determining constitutionally suitable funding: to restore state operating aid to 2009 levels when adjusted for inflation. However, the court said that if the Legislature phased in that amount over time, it needed to further account for inflation during the phase-in period, which the 2018 Legislature did not do.

Because the funding already provided and the inflation adjustment will be competing with other requests to raise state support in other areas and to reduce taxes, it is important look at the evidence that additional funding really matters in educational outcomes.

Why does funding matter in improving educational results?

  • Society expects more: higher graduation rates, more students successful in college and the workforce, more services, solving social issues. ​

It is rare for any organization to be able to provide significantly higher outcomes with no change in inputs. School districts are somewhat unique in that they have no control over the population they serve yet are expected to provide ever higher results. This includes not only academic results, such as having more students complete high school and go on to complete postsecondary studies, but to also address social problems from reducing bullying to improving nutrition to suicide prevention.

  • Achievement isn’t random: students with issues OUTSIDE the school’s control (such as poverty, disability and mental illness) have lower achievement.

If improving education was simply a matter of technique, rather than resources, all student groups should perform about the same way. But in Kansas public schools, as well as in other other state and private schools as well, achievement is closely correlated with factors the student brings to school before the first bell rings.

  • Overcoming those challenges usually takes more resources to make up for resources those students lack, or at minimum re-training staff. ​

For example, more affluent parents can afford to provide their children with extra resources in the form of higher quality preschool programs, or stay-at-home parents who can provide their own enrichment. Lower income families won’t have those programs unless the school system provides that support.

Likewise, many students with disabilities require more intensive screening, more individualized attention (even one-on-one services) and special equipment – all of which cost more.

Even in cases where the special needs of some students can be addressed by different teaching styles and methods, there is cost to retraining teachers who lack those skills.

  • Employment costs (75 percent of spending) and construction costs (about 13 percent of spending) usually rise faster than inflation. ​

A final reason why educational funds need to increase more than inflation is that school district costs tend to rise more than the consumer price index. The CPI is a “basket” of goods and services reflecting what families or households buy, such as food, fuel and housing.

School districts don’t buy the same thing as households. The biggest portion of their costs are for employee salaries and benefits, which in both the public and private sectors tend to increase more than the CPI. The second largest school district expense is usually paying for school buildings, and school construction costs have increased faster than the CPI.

How do we know increased funding improves education outcomes?

  • State and U.S. history: rising “real” increases (more than inflation); rising education levels. ​

One of the strongest indicators of the link between increased funding and increased outcomes is simply the history of both. Educational attainment has been rising steadily at least since U.S. Census records began in the 1940s, and Kansas funding data available since the 1970s shows that until 2009, on average school funding increased 1-2 percent more than inflation annually. Far from “spending more and getting the same results,” Kansas has been spending more and getting more people completing higher levels of education than ever.

  • Additional funding targeted at higher achievement: special education, early childhood, at-risk, alternative schools; or social concerns like safety, nutrition and technology. ​

A significant amount of additional funding was used for specific purposes to raise outcomes. For example, special education requirement began in the 1970s. Districts went from no requirements for kindergarten to universal half-day kindergarten to all day programs and added preschool. Rather than allowing students to drop out of high school, districts added summer school, at-risk programs, alternative schools and drop-out recovery.

The Legislature mandated breakfast programs in the 1990s, effectively doubling meals served, and the federal government increased food service requirements. In the computer age, schools moved from chalkboard to whiteboard to one-to-one computers for students. Schools responding to tornados and mass shootings increased building costs.

  • Three Kansas Legislative cost studies based on higher outcomes. ​

Since 2000, the Legislature commissioned three independent educational cost studies and a peer review. Each of those studies reported it would cost more to achieve significantly higher academic results as measured by tests scores and graduation rates.

National studies have shown the same results. Rutgers University professor and school finance expert Bruce Baker has published a paper last year through the Learning Policy Network entitled “How Money Matters for Schools.” His conclusion: “Recent studies have invariably found a positive, statistically significant relationship between student achievement gains and financial inputs.”

  • Comparison with other states. ​

The highest achieving states in student outcomes tend to spend more than the lowest achieving states. For example, all states that exceed Kansas based on an average of 15 indicators spend more than Kansas. The same is true regionally. The highest achieving states in the Plains region or bordering Kansas (Nebraska, Iowa, North Dakota and Minnesota) provide more funding per pupil than Kansas. The lowest achieving states (Colorado, Oklahoma and South Dakota) spent less than Kansas. Missouri has slightly slower results and spent slightly less Kansas in the most recent year funding data is available (2016).

  • Cost of proven programs that could be expanded. ​

Finally, there is Kansas-specific data available about certain programs that boost student achievement, such as Jobs for America’s Graduates-Kansas (JAG-K) and the Reading Roadmap. These programs have a proven record of higher success rates but are limited in funding. Expanding to more students who need extra assistance would cost additional funding.

Inflation versus state personal income

It should be noted that while K-12 funding has consistently increased more than inflation, it has not increased more than total state personal income; in other words, the percentage of all income of all Kansas residents going to K-12 education has not been rising. In fact, it is at the lowest levels since the 1990’s.