Michael A. MacDowell: Money Doesn’t Always Matter in Education

classroomBy Michael A. MacDowell

The 19th annual "Quality Counts" report in Education Week shows Pennsylvania was rated 8th for education among the nation's states. This is a significant accomplishment for which the state should be given justifiable credit. A closer examination of the criteria used by the magazine for rating schools in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, however, suggests that the total score needs to be disaggregated in order to obtain a full picture of schools in the Keystone State.

This year, the Bethesda, Md.-based nonprofit changed the criteria by which it rates states. The publication placed "more focus on outcomes." One of the outcomes that carried weight in the study was overall K-12 achievement. Pennsylvania's success here was good. The state ranked 8th in this important category.

Pennsylvania did not do as well in the area of early-childhood education, a category that received special attention in Education Week's ratings. In pre-kindergarten education our state earned a D-minus and ranked 41st among competing states. As many studies have shown, early childhood education is one of the keys to a student's later success in school. Further, a recent study by economists Claudia Persico, C. Kirabo Jackson and Rucker Jackson found that the benefits of spending are more pronounced for poor kids than wealthier ones. Therefore, it makes sense to invest more heavily in early childhood programs for low-income students.

Of course, the often-heard response is predictable when additional funding is sought for early childhood education. Advocates claim funding for these types of programs is lacking and the state spends too little per student on education. A closer look at this argument, though, raises some serious questions. First of all, despite significant criticism about the amount of money Pennsylvania spends on schools, a national ranking shows the commonwealth is actually in the upper three quarters of all states in the total amount spent per student, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Census data.

Despite this fact, the popular and often-used logic that increased spending results in better educational outcomes across the board remains an appealing argument for unions and school districts throughout the state. Jumping to this conclusion, though, isn't necessarily true – especially when it is applied to specific sub-sets of students.

For instance, the Independent Institute's National Assessment of Educational Programs shows that the parsimonious states of Arizona and Oklahoma spent an average of $4,200 and $4,300 respectively educating each student. Among the important category of low-income students, these states tended to have better educational outcomes in reading and math proficiency than Illinois and Nebraska, which spent $7,000 and $8,000 educating each other students, according to the nonpartisan, nonprofit in Oakland, Calif.,

Pennsylvania overall does relatively well in educating students when compared with similarly sized states. We also do it for less money per student. For this accomplishment, schools should be rewarded for progress made against measurable outcomes.

One way to assure this happens is to continually question whether more non-designated money for schools necessarily produces better results. Instead, funds should be targeted toward and limited to areas, such as early childhood education, where there is a need and where results can be measured. Additional innovative approaches, such as greater public support for many of the excellent private pre-K programs in the commonwealth, should be considered. Let us hope the governor and legislators keep these points in mind as they consider the new state budget.

Michael A. MacDowell is president emeritus of Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa., and is also the managing director of the Calvin K. Kazanjian Economics Foundation.

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