Many states are currently embroiled in court battles arising from lawsuits that challenge them, usually on constitutional grounds, to provide "adequate" funding for their public schools. These adequacy lawsuits, the effects of which have spilled over into state legislatures, are yet another example of the disconnect between words and slogans and reality. More than that, the blind pursuit of "adequacy" has a very real chance of hurting, rather than helping, our schools.
For three decades, school funding in the states has been driven by a series of court cases concerned with fiscal equity. These cases have a common argument: that state constitutions require more equitable spending between rich and poor school districts and communities than is typically found under a system of mixed state and local funding.
Despite winning such cases in a number of states, supporters of the lawsuits have been dismayed by the fruits of their labor. Some legislatures that were required by the courts to equalize spending across districts kept total spending levels constant, rather than bringing the level of spending in all districts up to that of the highest-spending districts. The proponents of these suits were unhappy because their real goal is not just equalized funding for schools, but more spending overall.
In reaction, a new kind of lawsuit and argument developed - the need for "adequate" spending. Under this legal strategy, even if school spending were equalized throughout a state, the amount spent per-pupil could still be deemed "inadequate" to provide an appropriate education. For example, one group, in an effort to circumvent a prior courtroom loss on equity, claimed that New York State was not providing the constitutionally required "adequate" spending to New York City, even though New York City schools were spending more per pupil than the average of forty-two states.
These new lawsuits have been aided and abetted by the very set of policies that provide true hope for improvement. As states have worked to develop serious content standards, for example, and have brought systems of testing and accountability on line, it has become apparent that many kids are not achieving at desired levels. Such information argues strongly for education reforms that involve incentives for improvement
But the adequacy advocates - who generally are not at all interested in any reforms that change institutional incentives or the like - take the need for improvement and convert it into an argument they find more to their liking: a demand for more resources dumped onto the existing, unreformed system. They argue (in ways that are appealing to a number of courts) that obviously more money is needed if outcomes are to be improved. And the fact that we do not have the desired outcomes is clear proof that education resources have been insufficient.
For the proponents of greater school spending, adopting the word "adequate" was a great coup, similar to adopting the word "equity" years earlier. Doesn't everyone want public education spending to be both equitable and adequate?
You will see here the implicit presumption that greater spending translates directly to improved school quality. Indeed, that's the crucial assumption behind an "adequacy" claim based on spending levels. Unfortunately, a massive amount of evidence indicates that per-pupil spending is not closely related to school quality or student learning.
How could this be? In the simplest terms, our public schools have too few incentives that reward good performance and too few disincentives that penalize poor performance. Today's schools introduce a host of unproven and unproductive programs. They overpay poor teachers (and underpay good teachers). They tolerate ineffective administrators at the state, district, and individual school level. In sum, they do not ensure that additional funds will be spent in ways that improve student learning.
Because funding is not related either to overall student performance or to learning by groups - minorities, disadvantaged students, or urban students - it is not a good index of equity. Nor is it possible to calculate how much needs to be spent to ensure adequate student performance. Within the current system, the "required spending" could be infinite if the resources are not used effectively to promote greater student performance.
Thus, when legislatures search for adequacy in funding or when courts demand it, they do not realize that it is a futile search for the Holy Grail - noble but ultimately illusory. The proponents of adequacy, on the other hand, know exactly what they want. By exploiting the moral authority and appeal-to-conscience associated with this term, they are able to press for greater spending, knowing that whatever is spent now will be insufficient and that still more will be called for tomorrow.
A variety of people have jumped into the breech to offer "scientific" answers to what is adequate. These people use different techniques - another example of good words gone bad - such as "professional judgment model," "successful schools model," or "cost function approach." This pseudo-science neglects two fundamental things. First, data on the currently inefficient use of funds cannot possibly tell us what would be required if more effective and efficient uses were made of resources. Second, it ignores the simple fact that determining the level of public spending on schools is a political decision, vested with legislatures and governors. It is not a scientific decision.
But how could the quest for adequacy actually hurt schools? After all, they are likely to get more resources, and some of it might be productively used even if other portions are wasted. The answer can be seen in New York State, Kansas, Ohio, and a variety of other places. Once court mandates enter the picture, any discussions of true reform are pushed to the sidelines as the legislatures and state education agencies find themselves consumed by pure spending issues.
Even more perniciously, if legislatures are to give more tax dollars - often a lot more dollars - to schools, they must be able to convince the public that they are not simply throwing more money at schools without any checks on the uses of those funds. That leads to an overwhelming tendency to centralize more and more school decision making in the state capital. This movement away from local decision making, where the truly important decisions are effectively made, is almost surely in the wrong direction.
The motivation for adequacy suits is real. Many U.S. children are not receiving the education they should. But, courts and legislatures cannot, with any effect, simply decree that achievement must be higher. Working through what they can most easily alter - the level and distribution of funding - has proven entirely ineffective in promoting achievement, no matter how many times they stipulate that any added money should be spent effectively. Pushing on an unreformed system, as we have diligently done for several decades, is unlikely to be any more successful in the future than it has been in the past.
When asked to rally around equity and adequacy in education, be skeptical because those words do not mean what you think - or what their promoters want you to think.
Eric A. Hanushek is the Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, a member of Hoover's Koret Task Force on K-12 Education, and winner of the 2004 Thomas B. Fordham Prize for Distinguished Scholarship.