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School Finance 101: Education Shouldn’t Be an Unfair Game!

A common claim these days, either in political rhetoric or in the context of litigation over the equity and adequacy of state school finance systems is that money simply doesn’t matter. The amount of money we put into any school or district is inconsequential to the outcomes children achieve or quality of education they receive. The public schooling system is simply a money black hole! Thus, it matters not how much money we throw at the system generally and it matters not whether some children get more than others. Further, it matters not whether children with greater educational needs have resources comparable to those with lesser needs and greater preexisting advantages.

Yes, these arguments are contradicted by the vast body of empirical evidence which finds otherwise! And these arguments are often used to deflect emphasis from disparities in resources across children that are egregious on their face, and often not merely a function of state legislative neglect of state school finance systems, but state legislative actions to drive more public resources to those already more advantaged. And things are only getting worse.

As I discuss extensively here, “academics” (used loosely) laying claim that additional dollars simply won’t help schools in general or poor children’s schools in particular (no matter how much or how little they presently receive) often rely on an assertion of a statistically murky relationship between the additional dollar that might be spent and the additional test score point that, in their view, likely won’t be yielded. Undoubtedly, the relationship between each additional dollar expended on schooling and each tested outcome point score increase is neither simple nor linear, nor easily untangled in many existing data sources (as is the case in any complex social system).

Clearly, how money is spent matters. One can spend the additional dollar on something that may contribute directly to children getting that one or two additional questions correct on state assessments, or one can spend that additional dollar on something else – which may in fact be useful though not contributing to the measured outcome, or may be spent in ways that fail to contribute to any noticeable outcome.

But the bottom line is that if you don’t have it, you can’t spend it!

And there exists no reasonable justification for districts like those identified in my recent report on America’s Most Financially Disadvantaged schools to be saddled with double the poverty and substantially fewer resources to apply toward achieving common outcome goals with their far more advantaged peers. These school districts include places like Bridgeport, CT, Reading, PA, as well as much larger, more prominent districts like Philadelphia and Chicago.

Current (federally coerced) state accountability systems set common outcome goals and with adoption of common core standards, many are raising those goals. Achieving high goals costs more than achieving lower ones and achieving higher goals under adverse conditions costs even more. And these newly, waiverly, common corely modified state accountability systems have consequences for schools and teachers, and the children they serve.

Penalizing institutions and individuals for not achieving goals they weren’t provided equitable opportunity to achieve is patently unfair.

Further, the possibility that additional funds provided to financially disadvantaged districts might be spent “unwisely” is insufficient basis for perpetuating deprivation and unfairness in the distribution of the consequences of that deprivation.

The responsibility for providing adequate funding rests with the state, as does the responsibility for ensuring that local public school districts use those resources wisely.

A frequent assertion of those wishing to brush equity and adequacy claims under the rug is that all local public school districts have more than enough money to achieve mandated outcomes and that those with far less money and more challenging conditions simply have to be more clever in how they allocate their resources to achieve adequate educational outcomes. That is, they must figure out how, within their existing budgets, to recruit and retain more skilled teachers to carry larger workloads under more difficult working conditions for less pay than they might get in more advantaged neighboring districts. They must develop these clever, odds-beating (more “efficient”) strategies in order to catch up – in order to bring their students to the state mandated common outcome standards.

As some in education reform circles argue,  school districts with fewer resources need to engage themselves in creative personnel management strategies analogous to those of the 2003 Oakland Athletics baseball team which overcame its relatively low total payroll to win the American League Division Series, through clever, statistically driven player recruitment and selection. [1]That is, schools, particularly disadvantaged ones, need a lesson in Moneyball! (the main title of the book chronicling the 2003 A’s).

There are a multitude of absurdities in this comparison, not the least of which is that once other “teams” (or school districts) catch on to the methods being used by one of their less advantaged competitors, any competitive edge created by those revenue-neutral, field-leveling strategies is negated.[2]

Then there’s the thorny issue that the lowest performing schools, unlike the teams with the worst win/loss records, don’t get first pick in the draft for new teachers. Rather, in reality, it’s quite the opposite![3]

The central problem however, is illustrated by the oft conveniently overlooked subtitle of the book Moneyball:

The art of winning an unfair game.

That is, the disparities in resources and resulting payrolls across major league baseball make it an unfair game. That’s understood. The owners and baseball executives seem to like it that way, and fans (except those in smaller markets which don’t matter as much) seem to accept the persistent lack of parity. Further, there’s no constitutional mandate that all baseball teams have resources sufficient to provide them equal opportunity to make the post-season or to achieve equitable win/loss records over time.

But children’s schooling isn’t baseball, and shouldn’t be an unfair game to begin with!

[1]For a discussion, see: &

[2]This would be especially true if all participants were mandated to employ the same metrics for rating, ranking and dismissing their employees, as under newly adopted statutes and regulations regarding teacher evaluation.

[3]Lankford, H., Loeb, S., & Wyckoff, J. (2002). Teacher sorting and the plight of urban schools: A descriptive analysis. Educational evaluation and policy analysis, 24(1), 37-62.

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Bruce D. Baker

Bruce D. Baker is a Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, where he teaches courses in school finance polic...