Accountability Equity Funding

Ben Spielberg: Why Money Matters and Why We Should Spend More on Education

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Ben Spielberg is a blogger who is knowledgeable about budgets and economics. In this post, he refutes the arguments of StudentsFirst leader Dmitri Mehlhorn that how money is spent matters, but we spend enough now. Spielberg works at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He knows whereof he writes. He says Mehlhorn is wrong, and he backs it up with “The Truth About School Funding.” Read his article to find and follow the links.

Spielberg marshals an impressive array of facts and data to show that we are far from achieving equitable or adequate funding of the neediest schools:

But what is adequate and equitable school funding? Researchers Bruce Baker and Danielle Farie and civil rights lawyer David Sciarra, who produce a National Report Card on school funding fairness, discuss this question at length in their 2015 report. One of the most important principles they note is that, because “[v]arying levels of funding are required to provide equal educational opportunities to children with different needs[,] finance systems should provide more funding to districts serving larger shares of students in poverty.”

School funding in the United States doesn’t come close to meeting this criterion; as Baker, Farie, and Sciarra show, fourteen states have regressive school funding systems, meaning they allocate less money to schools serving disadvantaged students than they do to schools serving more affluent student populations. Nineteen other states have roughly equivalent funding between the two types of schools. Only four states – Minnesota, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Delaware – score high enough across all of the researchers’ criteria (funding level; funding distribution; effort, or funding as a share of the state’s economy; and coverage, or “the share of school-age children enrolled in public schools and the degree to which there is economic disparity between households in the public versus private education system”) to have their funding systems deemed “fair.”

This analysis likely represents an upper bound on the degree of school funding equity in the United States. While California appears to have roughly equivalent funding for low- and high-income schools in the report, for example, there are major funding discrepancies between some of the state’s “basic aid” districts, which serve affluent students, and districts that serve lower-income populations. Within-district variations in spending also go undetected in the report’s metrics, as may situations in which funding that is supposed to follow high-need students doesn’t reach them.

Spielberg shows that Mehlhorn’s comparisons of spending in charter schools and spending in public schools are inaccurate.

What I have always noticed is that the argument “money doesn’t matter” always comes from people who have plenty of money and whose children are in very well-funded schools. I have never heard it said by any parent or teacher in an urban school.

Spielberg concludes:

Finally, it’s important to remember that even if aggregate funding levels were higher, aggregate numbers don’t speak to the distribution of funding. We’ve yet to target and sustain increased funding in schools that serve our neediest students. Especially when it comes to low-income areas, America definitely can – and should – invest more in K-12 public education.

We Should Avoid False Choices and Invest in Kids’ Opportunities

Increased funding, to be useful, must of course be spent in smart ways. Money by itself isn’t a panacea. But it’s important to get the facts right: money matters, and it matters quite a bit.

It is incredibly counterproductive to pit increased funding and smart spending against each other (though Mehlhorn’s piece acknowledges “that money spent properly can be helpful in improving achievement,” it balks at the idea that schools need additional funding), especially when schools serving the most disadvantaged students tend to get the fewest resources. Giving schools more money and making sure they spend that money wisely are complementary, not competing, goals.

Pitting education funding against social insurance and safety net spending, as former Tennessee education commissioner Kevin Huffman did in a recent article, is also absurd. While it’s true that adequate income support and health care matter most for low-income students and that school-based reforms cannot, contrary to Huffman’s assertion, “be the lynchpin of social mobility in America,” schools are still very important. Those truly committed to an equal opportunity agenda should stop taking potshots at its components and start getting to work on raising the revenues necessary to implement it.

As David Kirp wrote recently about pre-K programs: “Money doesn’t guarantee good outcomes, but it helps…In education, as in much of life, you get what you pay for.”

In America right now, we unfortunately don’t pay for the education system our students deserve. Until we do, we won’t get it.

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