Sunday, August 01, 2004

Article: Education and Spending

This article from the WSJ says that spending on education and performance are not related. We can spend more without getting any better results.


What Money Can't Buy
July 30, 2004; Page A10

Reg Weaver, President of the National Education Association, took to the podium in Boston this week to say that John Kerry was his man. And why not? Nearly one in 10 of the delegates to this week's Democratic convention belongs to a teachers union. (See chart below0.)

Mr. Kerry had canceled his appearance at the NEA's own convention at the last minute earlier this month, only to scramble and address it by satellite the next day after Mr. Weaver protested. The little scheduling snafu notwithstanding, if you're a teachers union leader, what's not to like in a candidate who has called for "fully funding education, no questions asked?"

We would have thought that calling for the feds to throw tax dollars at a problem with "no questions asked" was a little much, even for a Senator from Massachusetts. But the call for more spending looks all the more unthinking in the light of a study just-released by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government.

Though it zeroes in on local rather than state spending, the most obvious point underscored by "K-12 Education: Still Growing Strongly" is that whatever the problem with education, it's not caused by any unwillingness to throw more money at it. Between 1997 and 2002, state and local governments increased K-12 spending by 39%. Even after adjusting for inflation and growth in pupil enrollment, real spending was up nearly 17%. And it went up in every state, even those with strict tax and spending limits.

So what did we get in return? The Rockefeller study didn't say, so we decided to look at test scores for reading because there's probably no skill more fundamental to life-long learning. When we cross-referenced spending increases with the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading scores, we found virtually no link between spending and performance.

The table below tells the story. The states are ranked in order of their real, K-12 education spending increases from 1997-2002. Next to each state we list whether performance on the NAEP reading tests rose, fell or remained largely the same from 1998-2003 -- the period when the spending benefits should have kicked in. It's not as if the states were starting from a high base, either: According to these same tests, fewer than a third of fourth-graders are proficient in reading, math, science or American history.

The results are a direct refutation of the We Need More Spending chorus. Even a quick glance shows that the results are all over the map: Some states show improvements despite lower spending increases while others spend more yet make no dent in their scores. Surely it's telling that, even after jacking up its education spending by 46%, the top-spending District of Columbia improved its scores by no more than Florida, which is at the bottom of the spending chart but has been at the forefront of reforms allowing choice and demanding accountability.

Patrons of the status quo will complain that the Rockefeller numbers pre-date the fiscal crises of the past two years that forced some states to cut education spending. There are two answers to that. First is that we still should have seen some improvement in test scores from the previous spending increases. Second, as Rockefeller notes, these cuts were largely a blip: "over the longer term the rising trend in education spending is likely to continue," the study says -- putting it mildly.

The real problem is that, notwithstanding the $370 billion the states spend each year on K-12 public education, it remains a rare American monopoly. This election year we are going to hear candidates calling for all manner of new education spending. The question so few of them -- Republicans included -- are addressing is this: Is there any other part of American life that would receive tens of billions of more dollars if it kept showing no improvement in performance?



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