I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Sunday, August 21, 2016

When It Comes To Schools, Money DOES Matter -- Even in Michigan

I've become something of a connoisseur of a particular genre of opinion writing: the "We can't just throw money at schools!" op-ed. These pieces have a style all their own: they use the same talking points, the same context-free data points, and the same appeals to the same authorities. 
The goal of these pieces isn't to give a nuanced view of the role of funding in public education. Instead, they exist to place just enough doubt into the reader's mind about the need for equitable and adequate school funding so the status quo of public schools with mushrooms growing on the walls seems almost acceptable -- or, at least, better than the alternative.
Here's a fine example of the style -- Ingrid Jacques in the Detroit News:
Michigan is at an education crossroads. As its public schools continue to plummet in performance, state leaders can either demand proven accountability measures and smart investments — or they can take the easy way out.
In this case the easy way is to call for more money. And that’s exactly what school unions and administrators are doing. The State Board of Education is also singing that tune.
Jacques undoubtedly knows that calling for increased funding for any government function these days is hardly "easy." Decades of conservative rhetoric (transmitted through outlets like Jacques' editorial page) have made it nearly impossible for even the most liberal politicians to advocate for significant tax hikes to support public programs, especially education.

The "easy" way to justify the horrible conditions found in Detroit's (and Michigan's other disadvantaged cities') schools is to pretend that all sorts of vaguely described "accountability" systems must be put in place before necessary funds are allowed to flow to public education. Because, as everyone knows, we spend so very much on our schools:
Austin is right about how Michigan students are falling behind. Studies have shown how the state’s students are often in the bottom 10 for performance in key subjects on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. And that includes all students — regardless of race or income.
But he’s wrong when he tries to pin most of the blame on money — and a Republican governor and Legislature. This year’s School Aid Fund budget has increased to over $14 billion; students across the state are getting a boost.
OMG! $14 billion! That's obviously insane!!!

$14 BILLION dollars!

Rather than citing utterly useless a-contextual figures, Jacques should have gone to the School Funding Fairness Report Card, and seen for herself how Michigan actually compares with other states in its effort to fund schools:
The National Report Card 4th Edition

Funding Level 


Michigan is right in the middle, when judged by figures appropriately adjusted for regional differences. And yet the state is quite mediocre when it comes to distributing funds to more disadvantaged communities where it's needed the most.

These op-ed pieces also inevitably bemoan the poor performance of the author's "high spending" state:
It’s helpful to look at how Michigan compares with other states that are getting good returns on investment.
According to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2014 Michigan came in 20th with $12,856 in total K-12 per-pupil revenue (state, local and federal funding). Massachusetts ranked eighth with $17,896 per student. Yet Tennessee, another state often upheld for the academic progress it’s making, is 46th at $9,284.
When a state’s personal income data is thrown into the mix, Michigan lands at 23rd — and Massachusetts falls to 29th. Tennessee is 47th.
Both Massachusetts and Tennessee (along with the majority of other states) outperform Michigan on national tests.
Let's first acknowledge that cherry-picking Massachusetts and Tennessee for a comparison is suspect on its own. Further, it's quite a stretch to say Tennessee is beating the pants off of Michigan:

The way Jacques wrote her piece might lead a reader to think MA and TN are in the same category when it comes to student achievement. But clearly they are not: TN is actually much closer to MI when it comes to national test scores. In fact, while TN edges out MI in Grade 4 scores, the two states are indistinguishable in Grade 8.

Of course, simply comparing scores without controlling for student characteristics is wholly unwarranted. When making a simple adjustment for poverty, MI is about where we'd expect on its test score outcomes (see p.16 here). Could MI do better? Of course, but it's hardly the outlier you would think it was from reading Jacques' op-ed.

In any case, Jacques would have us believe that her highly selective data points contradict a large and growing body of empirical evidence that supports the claim that funding can and does significantly affect student outcomes. Each year, more evidence piles up that schools can and do improve when they have adequate resources. It's become increasingly untenable to deny this -- so Jacques, like all writers in this style, tries to muddy the issue by saying how schools spend is more important than how much they spend:
State Superintendent Brian Whiston also got on board with the adequacy study, calling it a good start, but he included caveats, suggesting longer school years and more professional development for educators.
“We can’t just pour more money into the current way of doing things,” Whiston said in a statement.
Massachusetts didn’t rise to the highest-achieving state overnight. It started two decades ago crafting strong accountability measures and a detailed budget plan — spearheaded by state business leaders. This group, which still exists, created budget proposals for a wide range of districts. While the state did increase funding as part of these reforms, it targeted the money to the districts that needed it most — accounting for poverty and special education.
OK... so what?

If Jacques is saying that money needs to be targeted where it's needed the most, you'll get no argument from me, or anyone else who studies this stuff. But you can't spend money you don't have! Jacques herself notes Massachusetts increased school funding. Granted, it takes less effort for a high-income state to increase its school spending; still, Massachusetts did increase its effort over the years to get more funding for education.

No one thinks we should just throw money at schools. But school funding doubters take this obvious point and twist it to justify inaction on reforming school funding. How much "accountability" does Jacques need before she's willing to stand up and call for Michigan's urban districts to finally get the funds they need to do their jobs?

Jacques' piece ends with what all opinings like this seem to require: a quote from "The Merchant of Doubt," economist Erik Hanushek:
Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, warned against Michigan’s adequacy study. As an expert in the economics of education, he has shown that it takes much more than increased funding to influence performance.
Yet he highlights Massachusetts as a state that was able to reap rewards from its larger school investment.
“Massachusetts combined strong standards, assessment, and accountability with increased funding,” Hanushek has found. “The basic problem with most school finance systems, both those in existence and those proposed, is that funding is separated from education policy.”
Again, the evidence that funding does matter has piled up so high that not even Hanushek can argue against it. The current tack, instead, seems to be making the case that we need more "accountability" before we open up the purse strings.

But just how much "accountability" do folks like Jacques and Hanushek need before they call for more money for Michigan's disadvantaged schools? How "strong" do the standards have to be? How many more biased, noisy tests do the kids have to take?

Lord knows Michigan's school system could use more oversight, starting with its disastrous charter school sector (which is such a mess even charter cheerleaders say it needs a huge overhaul). But even a rigorous accountability system requires adequate funds. I mean, you have to pay the overseers, right? So where's the call for more funding for that?

For Jacques, and the others who opine about "throwing money at schools," there will never be enough accountability -- because accountability is nothing more than an excuse. Like the obsessions with teacher tenure and charter schools and merit pay and all sorts of reformy reforms, increased "accountability" is just another way to put off some hard truths: Schools need money, disadvantaged schools usually don't have enough, and states are going to have to raise more revenues to get those schools what they need to educate their students.

Ingrid Jacques and her fellow travelers can fret and worry all they want about vague notions of "accountability" -- but that's the easy way to avoid the truth.

Detroit News Editorial Board.

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