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December 02, 2009
January 28, 2011
February 02, 2011
How much does an "adequate" K-12 education cost?
What about a "reasonable" education? Courts weigh in on these
questions regularly; last year alone saw a New
Jersey ruling demanding half a billion more in state support for the
so-called Abbott districts, as well as a Colorado
case that questioned voters' judgment about what constituted appropriate
support of a "thorough and uniform" school system. This year brings
an interesting new development to the table: New Hampshire voters may tell
the state Supreme Court to butt out entirely.
There's a lot to be said for the Granite State's
typically libertarian approach. As the Hoover Institution's Rick Hanushek said
to Ed Week after the Colorado ruling, the
courts are not a good place to adjudicate the ongoing academic research on the
role of school spending in driving achievement. In particular, the record of New Jersey's Abbott
districts, the recipients of billions of dollars in additional court-mandated
state support since the mid-1980s, is abysmal.
This highlights one of the most fundamental criticisms of
activist meddling in school finance systems by courts: quality rarely, if ever,
enters the picture. Judges simply assume that poor performance implies
inadequate funding, and that layering more money on top of failing systems will
improve student outcomes. Anyone in the corporate world who has been through a
tough restructuring will tell you that more money serves to hide problems (even
fraud and embezzlement) as often as it solves them. Failing school districts
have proven this over and over again as they've frittered away funding
increases without moving the needle on performance.
States already have an incentive to spend plenty on
education. Strong, well-funded schools attract workers and businesses. The key
question is whether the state pot is divided equitably, not just between rich
and poor, but among students in a variety of school settings: district
and charter, virtual, voucher, urban, suburban, and rural. On that score, even
very high-spending states have not done much to provide robust, demanding
education programs across the full spectrum of choices.
If instead funding truly followed every child—without
holding traditional providers like school districts harmless or endlessly
protecting wealthy suburbs from changes to state formulas—we could move from
vague discussions about adequacy to ensuring a variety of high-quality choices
for every child.