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Money, schools, and what matters

For years there’s been a persistent myth that school funding is unrelated to student outcomes. Politicians on both sides of the aisle decry the rising spending and stagnant test scores. It’s not the money, these politicians say, but how the money is spent.

In a certain sense, they’re right. School funding in the aggregate certainly has been increasing, more than doubling since the early 70s, and scores on the NAEP exam, the nation’s report card, have indeed been stagnant. And of course, they’re also right that how you spend the money matters a great deal.

However, they’re mostly very wrong. First, there’s voluminous research demonstrating the importance of increased funding in schools, particularly for low-income students, particularly if used on the right school inputs, and particularly if measuring long-term outcomes instead of test score gains. I’ll devote a future post to this research.

But the most compelling argument for why school funding matters relates to what parents of means do for their own children.

Stephen Henderson, editorial page editor for the Detroit Free Press, made this same argument in a column earlier this year. Parents of means don’t look at the research to figure out if school funding matters for their kids. As Henderson writes, they simply identify what their kids need, and then figure out how to pay for it, be it moving to a district with quality schools or paying for private schools.

This, of course, should be our philosophy when it comes to the funding of public education for all Michigan students: we should identify what kids need, and then figure out how to pay for it.

So it’s worth looking at how much is spent in wealthy districts and elite private schools, and what it is parents are buying.

While the majority of districts in Michigan receive little more in state and local funding than the per-pupil foundation grant of around $7,500, there are a certain number of wealthy “hold harmless” districts that are permitted to raise significantly more in local taxes for operating revenues. One of these districts is Birmingham Public Schools, receives around $12,000 annually per pupil.

What are parents in Birmingham buying? The district’s strategic plan gives us some idea. The district’s goals center on engaging students in an expansive curriculum that allows all students to discover their passions; developing empathy in their students to create ethical leaders; and giving students unlimited opportunities for learning. All of these objectives cost money: highly qualified staff, small class sizes, and a wide array of technological tools and curricular materials.

Another example is the Greenhills School in Ann Arbor, one of Michigan’s most elite private schools, where Governor Snyder sent his children. At Greenhills, tuition is over $20,000, and a look at the Greenhills website gives you some idea what $20,000 gets you: beautiful facilities, small class sizes, a broad curriculum, a comprehensive set of extra-curricular activities, and a highly qualified teaching staff of subject-matter experts. These are the needed inputs to develop the “curious, creative, and responsible citizens” the school hopes to graduate.

Yet none of these objectives, in Birmingham or at Greenhills, can be measured by a standardized test score. We wouldn’t be able to find evidence that increased school funding “worked.” But parents know these objectives are important, and know that who teaches their children, with what materials, and in what environment matter, so they spend the money.

While there is a whole lot that goes into providing students with a quality education, school funding expert Bruce Baker from Rutgers University (who has a great post on this very issue of using parental preferences to guide education funding policy), notes that the focus should really be on two factors that are present in just about every school serving wealthy students: small class sizes and well-paid teachers.

While low-income districts like Detroit do receive significant compensatory federal funding (known as Title I funding), the money is mostly used for professional development, and either can’t be used for or fails to make a dent in the two factors listed above. So while Birmingham public schools have pupil-teacher ratios of 19 to 1 and average teacher salaries of over $75,000, Detroit schools have 32 kids in a class, and an average teacher salary just over $50,000.

Again, one can argue that these things don’t matter, and that you can make schools work with huge class sizes and poorly paid teachers. But if we seriously evaluate our education policy decisions based on what we’d want for our own kids, what matters becomes apparent pretty quickly.








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Patrick Cooney

Patrick Cooney is a policy associate for Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future's mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. I would agree with higher education funding resulting in smaller class size and higher average pay for teachers. However there should be one big concession from the teachers union. In return for higher average pay and smaller classes, the teachers unions would have to give up the right to tenure, agree to base pay on teacher performance and agree to support the school districts’ right to replace poorly performing teachers with no interference from the union. If the teachers unions do not agree to these reforms, most of the additional dollars raised will be wasted on poor teachers.
    I think citizens have a right to expect this in return for higher taxes to support schools.

    1. Thanks for your comment Don! I agree that concessions from unions are necessary. And I also think that unions need to be brought in as partners, not adversaries, in efforts to improve outcomes for all students. Here’s a nice piece on how unions are used to do that in Canada and Finland.

    2. I think the inability to fire bad teachers is exaggerated. Certainly as an explanation of why we have so many low quality schools. What we have learned in our work with Detroit high schools is that what matters most is the commitment and capability of management––both in charters and traditional district schools. Teacher quality is a reflection of management. Both in who they hire and how they develop and retain talent. We need to focus more on holding management accountable. Yes they should have flexibility in personnel decisions. But lets stop blaming the teachers for everything and focus far more on the management of schools.

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