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Topic: Educating From the Bench
Replies: 5   Last Post: Apr 28, 2006 10:33 AM

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Registered: 12/6/04
Educating From the Bench
Posted: Apr 27, 2006 9:17 AM
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The money quote:

And the fact that per pupil spending has doubled [in real dollars] over the past three decades while student achievement has remained stagnant ought to give us a clue that simply spending more won't fix schools. The shortcomings of schools are not generally attributable to the lack of resources, but to a lack of incentives to use resources effectively.

Educating From the Bench
Judges order legislators to spend more on schools, and taxpayers see less in return.

Thursday, April 27, 2006 12:01 a.m.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark.--Spending on public schools nationwide has skyrocketed to $536 billion as of the 2004 school year, or more than $10,000 per pupil. That's more than double per pupil what we spent three decades ago, adjusted for inflation--and more than we currently spend on national defense ($494 billion as of 2005). But the argument behind lawsuits in 45 states is that we don't spend nearly enough on schools. Spending is so low, these litigants claim, that it is in violation of state constitutional provisions requiring an "adequate" education. And in almost half the states, the courts have agreed.

Arkansas is one such state, and its "adequacy" problem neatly illustrates the way courts have driven spending up and evidence out. In 2001 the state Supreme Court declared the amount of money spent at that time--more than $7,000 per pupil--in violation of the state constitutional requirement to provide a "general, suitable and efficient" system of public education. Like courts in other states, Arkansas's court ordered that outside consultants be hired to determine how much extra funding would be required for an adequate education.

A firm led by two education professors, Lawrence Picus and Allan Odden, was paid $350,000 to put a price tag on what would be considered adequate. In September 2003 Messrs. Picus and Odden completed their report, concluding that Arkansas needed to add $847.3 million to existing school budgets. They also recommended policy changes, but the only thing that really mattered, at least as far as the court was concerned, was the bottom line--bringing the total to $4 billion, or $9,000 per pupil.

One might think that relying on court-ordered experts would be more rational and responsible than leaving spending decisions to politicians. The exact opposite is the case. For all of their defects, legislators can be held responsible for wasting taxpayer dollars, while courts and the consultants they mandate generally cannot. This gives courts and consultants license to use pseudoscience to drive education spending higher, where legislators might be more skeptical and frugal.

The Picus and Odden report is a perfect example. To determine adequate spending they rely on what they immodestly call the "evidence-based" approach. This involves selectively embracing educational practices that some research finds beneficial and costing those policies out. Their method does not address whether their favored reforms would really result in an adequate education or are in fact the most cost-effective. This approach is about as "evidence-based" as the one employed by the diet-crazy person who comes across a study that says olive oil is healthy and decides to sprinkle it on everything he eats. There is some evidence to support it, but is it really the most sensible and effective way to assure "adequate" health?

But the most obvious sign the Picus and Odden report is not really evidence-based is its neglect of empirical examination of the overall relationship between school spending and student achievement. If spending more is the answer to inadequate education, it should be the case that schools that spend more per pupil, all else being equal, have higher student achievement.
As it turns out, they don't. The vast majority of social science studies find no relationship between spending and student achievement. My own analysis of schools in Arkansas finds that schools with more money perform no better than schools with less once student and community background characteristics are controlled. And the fact that per pupil spending has doubled over the past three decades while student achievement has remained stagnant ought to give us a clue that simply spending more won't fix schools. The shortcomings of schools are not generally attributable to the lack of resources, but to a lack of incentives to use resources effectively.

By declaring that spending had to increase, the court foreclosed consideration of this relevant evidence. And by requiring the Legislature to base the size of the increase on the recommendations of consultants, the court privileged the spending level preferred by the consultants over those that other experts might recommend or that legislators might want. If legislators did not increase spending by roughly what Messrs. Picus and Odden asserted, they would be held in violation of the court order.

Yet even this wasn't enough. After the total amount provided to Arkansas schools increased by 25% in one year, the legislature slowed the pace of spending. For the 2005 school year, money was added to the teacher health plan and school construction funds, but the minimum amount that school districts would receive for operating expenses (excluding capital and categorical money) was left unchanged at $5,400. The plaintiff attorneys argued before the state high court that spending had to at least match inflation.

The court agreed and ordered the governor to call the Legislature in special session to remedy the situation. Legislators met in early April and in less than a week increased spending again. They were so eager to placate the court that they gave schools more for the current school year, even though it could hardly do any good with only a month remaining. They also increased spending without knowing how the last round of additional money was being used or whether it had any effect. Messrs. Picus and Odden were retained for another $450,000 to provide this information, but their report is not expected until August.
One legislative leader attempted to justify their haste by declaring, "Lack of information does not justify legislative procrastination." Doesn't it? What information we do have suggests that schools haven't been able to digest the new influx very well. Unspent reserves as of October 2005 were $1.1 billion, more than 25% of the total budget. That is, schools can't even spend the additional money fast enough as the court orders more.

In Arkansas, as in too many other states, elected leaders have ceded control over the size of education budgets to unaccountable courts. Judges and the consultants they require are not easily held responsible for misusing evidence or wasting taxpayer dollars. As long as this continues, expect to spend more on education and see less in return.

Mr. Greene, a professor at the University of Arkansas, is author of "Education Myths" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005).

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